The state's bungled effort to address racial profiling by police -- stopping someone solely because of race or ethnicity -- is a textbook example of why people become cynical about government.
The legislature passed a law that appeared to address the problem, but actually didn't. What followed, perhaps not surprisingly, was an egregious case of racial profiling.
The profiling problem obviously needs to be addressed. A first step might be to see if the law works.
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
The anti-racial profiling law was passed in 1999, following national and local incidents of profiling such as the Avon police department's regularly stopping African-Americans on their way to a swimming area in Litchfield County. The law bans racial profiling, requires police departments to adopt a written anti-profiling policy and requires them to submit racial data on each traffic stop, so the stops can be analyzed for possible patterns of racial profiling.
It is this last requirement that has become problematic. The reports on traffic stops have not been analyzed since 2001, the year after the law went into effect, when the chief state's attorney was responsible for the collection and analysis of the data. In 2003, that responsibility was shifted to the legislature's African-American Affairs Commission, which had neither the staff nor the budget to analyze the data, said the commission's director.
There were other problems as well. Fewer than half of the state's 92 police departments were sending in data, and those that were, were not all using the same format. Still, reports on tens of thousands of traffic stops were going unanalyzed each year (which may have discouraged compliance).
And what should happen? After an investigation that began in September 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report accusing the East Haven Police Department of "systematically discriminating against Latinos." The report found that East Haven officers targeted Latinos for discriminatory traffic enforcement, treated Latino drivers more harshly than non-Latino drivers after a stop and failed to take steps to stop such conduct, which it described as "deeply rooted in the department's culture."
The report drew an angry response from black and Latino legislators, who said enforcement of the state law might have uncovered the East Haven situation sooner.
State officials also learned, thanks to a story by The Hartford Advocate's Gregory Hladky, that there actually is money for enforcement of racial profiling programs. The state received two federal grants of $600,000 each in 2005 and 2006, money that has been sitting unused in a Department of Transportation account ever since. (Question: Are there any more such accounts out there?)
SO WHAT NOW?
For all of the controversy, it is not clear that the data reporting program, at least as laid out in the statute, is an effective way to detect racial profiling. For example, the reports do not ask the race of the police officer, or require much data about the context of the stop. No one gets terribly offended when police stop a white person in a minority area known for heavy drug activity. Also, it's not clear how an analyst would discern racial profiling in a city such as Hartford, where most of the residents are members of minority groups and there is a racially integrated police department.
Nonetheless, the law is on the books. Perhaps the way forward is to use the federal grant to fix the reporting system and then analyze the data for a finite period of time, say two or three years. If the analysis is not useful or cost-effective, there is another option in the law, and that is to investigate each individual complaint of racial profiling. However attacked, it is an untoward practice in a multicultural society and must be ended. As one legislator put it, there can't be any more East Havens.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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