The traffic stop of State Treasurer Denise Nappier in September and ensuing actions by Hartford police officers gave the public a glimpse into how minorities are treated each and every day.
This incident must be viewed in a larger context. Police interaction with the public, particularly in cities and involving minorities, presents one of the thorniest issues confronting our justice system. Police officers have enormous discretion to determine when and how they interact with members of the communities they serve. It is a decision point ripe for misuse.
The scope of the problem is difficult to pin down, despite various attempts to measure its extent. Connecticut passed legislation to collect data on racial profiling, but it relies on self-reporting by officers, and a lack of resources has kept the data from being compiled and analyzed.
However, a national survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on police-public contacts provides a wide range of information. Among the findings: the most common reason for contact with police was being a driver in a traffic stop, and, although police stopped white, black and Hispanic drivers at similar rates, black drivers were three times as likely as white drivers and two times as likely as Hispanic drivers to be searched.
We can also examine instances where we suspect an abuse has occurred. Ms. Nappier's case is a perfect example. Two elements of what transpired require scrutiny: Was there a legally valid reason for the police to stop and question Ms. Nappier, and were the actions taken by officers after the stop appropriate?
Regarding the first question, to stop a vehicle, police must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the car's operator was involved in criminal or suspicious activity or violating a motor vehicle law. It is well established law that presence in a high-crime area alone is not a legal basis for a police stop. Otherwise, everybody living in a high-crime area would be subject to frequent stops by the police, while those who live in safer neighborhoods would not. This would violate the fundamental freedom to conduct our lives without unwarranted police interference that is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Since driving a nice car in a bad neighborhood is not sufficient grounds for a stop, was there another legal reason to stop Ms. Nappier? The investigation of the incident, based on interviews with the officers involved, found there was. However, based on her review of the police report, Hartford State's Attorney Gail Hardy did not. If the stop was questionable, it would hardly be unique. Unjustified stops happen every day. It may well be that police need a little wiggle room here — preventing and detecting crime is not an exact science, and they need to be able to do their job. But what happens after a stop makes all the difference.
Accounts of what happened after Ms. Nappier was stopped vary, but the police report states that the officer found no record of her plate and that Ms. Nappier could not produce a valid registration or proof of insurance. Despite telling police that she was the state treasurer driving a state car, Ms. Nappier was issued a misdemeanor summons and the car was towed.
Fortunately, the court system worked as it should. Prosecutors' duties include reviewing all court cases to determine the appropriateness of charges filed by the police. This is a critical check on the actions of officers in the field, who must make difficult decisions quickly. State's Attorney Hardy reviewed the police report and found the stop was not supported by legal grounds. Based on that finding, she exercised the discretion of her office and nolled all charges against Ms. Nappier.
We hope that by highlighting a practice that occurs frequently — police stops of individuals for insufficient or no reason — some good will result from this unfortunate incident. The Hartford Police Department investigation recommends retraining of the officer involved. All officers must not only receive training on when and how to use their discretion, but that training must be regularly reinforced. This will both enhance police-community relations and protect the constitutional freedoms so important to us all.
Lubbie Harper Jr. is chairman of the Connecticut Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System and a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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