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Unequal Enforcement: Black, Hispanic Drivers Faced Tougher Treatment From Police

By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN

February 25, 2012

Black and Hispanic drivers stopped by police across Connecticut are significantly more likely to leave the encounter with a ticket or a court date than are white motorists pulled over for the same offense, a first-ever analysis of state data shows.

From running stop signs to busted taillights, an analysis by the Courant of more than 100,000 traffic stops by dozens of local departments in 2011 found widespread disparity in how racial and ethnic minorities are treated.

Blacks and Hispanics fared especially poorly when stopped for equipment-related violations. Among nearly 4,000 stops related to the display or use of license plates, for example, 13 percent of white motorists left with a citation, compared with 27 percent of black drivers and 36 percent of Hispanics.

For more than 2,600 stops involving improper taillights, black motorists were twice as likely and Hispanics nearly four times as likely to be ticketed, compared to white drivers.

Across the country, studies have sought to determine whether police are more likely to target blacks and Hispanics when deciding which vehicles to pull over. But the Courant's analysis focused on disparities in the treatment of motorists after they are stopped.

The unequal outcome was most striking among Hispanic motorists, who were more likely than both whites and blacks to be ticketed in each of 13 categories of violations for which there were at least 1,000 stops. Black drivers fared worse than whites in 10 of the 13 categories.

"Well, I wish I could say I'm surprised, but I'm not," said state Rep. Kelvin Roldan, who said he has been the victim of racial profiling many times in his 23 years in Connecticut. "These are real violations of people's civil rights."

For nearly a decade, state law has required every police department to send detailed information on traffic stops to the African-American Affairs Commission for review. Most departments have ignored the law, but even for those that complied, the commission has reported each year since 2005 that it lacks the funds to do anything more than tally and file the records.

But an analysis by the Courant of the commission's most recently acquired reports, along with data submitted by police agencies to the Capitol Region Council of Governments, uncovered what Glenn A. Cassis, executive director of the African-American Affairs Commission has long suspected.

"This is not good," he said, shaking his head as he studied a series of graphs showing the disparity.

"This is beyond profiling. This goes to actually a level of discrimination, and who gets the wink and who doesn't get the wink," he said. "An officer can make a decision on whether or not to give a ticket, and it seems they've landed on a decision that if you're a minority, you're going to get a ticket."

The disparity was evident in stops as serious as speeding and running red lights, and as mundane as being overdue for an emissions inspection. Among the findings:

--Stops for traffic-signal violations led to citations for 26 percent of white motorists, compared to 30 percent of black drivers and 42 percent of Hispanics.

--For violations of state laws on tinted windows, white motorists were ticketed 12 percent of the time. For blacks and Hispanics, the figure was 17 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

--Among drivers stopped for an improper turn or stop, blacks were nearly 50 percent more likely to be ticketed than whites. Hispanics were twice as likely.

For violations with seemingly little room for discretion such as driving with a suspended license the percentage of motorists receiving a ticket or summons was high and fairly uniform. But the racial and ethnic disparity widened for moving violations and equipment problems, where officers had wider latitude in deciding the outcome.

"This tells me there's a different level of discretion being used by police officers when they pull people over," Cassis said. "This is alarming."

Anthony Salvatore, chief of police in Cromwell and legislative co-chairman of the Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association, said he had no clear explanation for the disparity, but said it was possible that in some cases, a minor motor-vehicle stop may have revealed a more-serious violation. The reports list only the initial reason for a stop, even if the motorist ultimately was cited for a different offense.

"They may have initially put down that it was for a stop sign, and it could have led to something else," he said.

Salvatore said officers have discretion in enforcement actions, but are expected to base their decisions on relevant factors, such as the seriousness of the incident.

"Maybe by disregarding a stop sign, in one case there was almost an accident, the other one was just a person rolling through," he said. "Those are the types of things that are supposed to be taken into consideration."

He said decisions based on race or ethnicity would not be tolerated.

"In general, I don't believe the officers are targeting one group over another," he said. "I'm not aware of any chief that would accept if that was going on; that certainly would be frowned upon if that was the case. Certainly I wouldn't accept it."

The data reviewed by the Courant included reports from 33 police departments that submitted electronic information on a substantial number of traffic stops during 2011. Several other departments submitted only paper records, which were not analyzed.

A small number of other towns had sent the commission data in 2010, but had not submitted updated reports at the time of the Courant's analysis, which began in January. In total, only about 40 police agencies have consistently submitted reports about a third of all municipal departments but Salvatore said he knows of others that are properly compiling the records.

Although racial and ethnic disparities were not evident for every category of violation in every town, differences were consistently evident for many minor offenses. Nine towns reported at least 500 equipment-related stops during the year, including at least 50 stops of black motorists and 50 of Hispanic motorists. Smaller sample sizes means less statistical certainty, but in all nine towns, blacks and Hispanics were anywhere from 9 percent to 304 percent more likely to receive a citation than whites.

In Westport, 31 percent of white drivers stopped for an equipment violation ended up receiving a ticket or summons, compared with 37 percent of black motorists and 52 percent of Hispanics.

In Torrington and Glastonbury, blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely to be cited after an equipment-related stop.

There was a similar gap in Milford, where 10 percent of white motorists received a citation after an equipment stop, compared to 23 percent of black drivers and 24 percent of Hispanics.

Keith Mello, Milford's police chief, said his department keeps a close watch on traffic-stop data, and implemented an early-warning system seven years ago designed to detect possible racial profiling.

"We look at our overall numbers, and we look at our numbers per officer, just on the motor-vehicle stops, and we saw no disparity of all, no inequities at all," Mello said. "But I think it's definitely something worth taking a closer look at, and based on what you've told me here, we're going to pull these tickets, take a good look at it and do some individual analysis that perhaps we haven't done before."

Mello said that his department purchased software to help analyze traffic stops, but that the program did not break down enforcement actions by individual offenses.

"I have no reason to believe that any of our officers are engaged in any inappropriate behavior when it comes to enforcement of the motor-vehicle laws or the criminal statutes," Mello said. "But based on these numbers, I think it's something we need to take a look at. We are definitely going to drill into this further."

Lawmakers first required municipalities to report traffic-stop data in 2000, and directed the chief's state's attorney's office analyze the numbers. A 2001 report by the office found that black and Hispanic drivers statewide were more likely to be stopped, more likely to have their vehicles searched and more likely to receive a summons.

Nevertheless, the report concluded that "minority drivers do not appear to be systematically treated differently than non-minority drivers," because the analysis found that for most departments, the racial and ethnic disparities were small.

The chief state's attorney's report found that black and Hispanic drivers were more often stopped for less-serious motor-vehicle violations. But in analyzing dispositions, the report looked only at all traffic stops combined, rather than comparing the treatment of motorists stopped for the same offense.

In 2003, the legislature amended the law to require police departments to submit traffic-stop reports to the African-American Affairs Commission for analysis, but no reports have been issued.

The racial discrimination scandal in East Haven revived interest in efforts to determine the extent of racial profiling by police. A bill in the legislature last year would have transferred responsibility for analyzing the data to the Office of Policy and Management, but it never came up for a full vote.

Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said the legislation is back this year, and he sees stronger support this time around.

"At the end of the day, once this is improved, not only are we going to protect our community from civil rights abuses, but also a police force may be protected from erroneous allegations of racial profiling," Oyanadel said. "So this is a win-win situation for everyone in the state."

Cassis, of the African-American Affairs Commission, said he would like to see an analysis of traffic stops by individual officers, to determine if the disparities diminish when motorists are pulled over by black or Hispanic police officers. Such an analysis, he said, also could identify individual officers who appear to be singling out racial and ethnic minorities for harsher treatment.

He said he would also like to bring together various stakeholders in the issue citizens, law-enforcement agencies, advocacy groups to develop strategies to assure drivers are treated fairly, including rigorous training, and efforts to root out individual departments or officers who appear to be engaging in discrimination.

"It's just disturbing that if you're a person of color, you're more likely to get a ticket," Cassis said. "That's not equal. That's not right. It's not what you'd want to see in the state of Connecticut."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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