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A Proposed Ordinance Would Put New Limits On How City Police Conduct Searches and Launch Investigations

Trying to end profiling.

By Rick Guinness

November 22, 2010

Everyone says they are against “racial profiling.” But not everyone has the same definition of what it is. And despite a conspicuous lack of formal complaints about racial profiling by citizens, civil rights activists insist that the problem is rampant in the wake of 9/11 — which is why they rallied last week in support of the anti-racial-profiling ordinance proposed by Minority Leader Luis E. Cotto that would limit the power of police to target private citizens for stops, frisks, interrogations, searches and arrests.

The proposed amendment to the Hartford Municipal Code, which would place new limits on how city police conduct searches and launch investigations, is now in its second incarnation, after Cotto withdrew it in September, under strong opposition by police and corporation council. The proposed amendment would prohibit police from selecting anyone for “surveillance, searches, pat-downs, interrogations, or arrest” based on race, ethnicity, country of origin or religion. Cotto and a team of civil rights lawyers revised it in deference to those legal and law enforcement concerns. The original draft of the amendment required “probable cause” for launching an investigation, which officials thought raised too high of a bar. The new proposed ordinance maintains the “reasonable suspicion” standard.

Cotto resubmitted the proposed amendment to the council on Nov. 8. But the latest version is every bit as controversial, and sparked a rally on the steps of City Hall on Nov. 15 — which was complete with signs, chanting and numerous tales of racial profiling incidents — just before a well-attended public hearing.

Meanwhile, police, who were standing on the sidelines at the event, said that they have not been doing anything illegal or discriminatory.

“We don’t profile,” said police officer Giovanni Dicenso. However, he added, “if I see a white guy in the North End at 4 in the morning, I know what he is up to.”

And if his gut tells him the guy is looking to buy drugs, he said that typically police will continue to observe the man until they find a reason to investigate further.

When it comes down to finding a reason for stopping him, Dicenso said that probable cause usually presents itself: “There is always something,” he said. “You can always find [probable cause] … if you look hard enough …”

To proponents of the amendment, that is profiling. But Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts says that is not the case. Roberts said that legally police may check out anyone who they find suspicious, as long as they don’t arrest someone without probable cause, and that civil rights advocates can’t tell police who they cannot observe.

“If I am a real estate agent, you can’t tell me I can’t look at a building,” he said, adding, “You can’t legislate surveillance. … There is a difference between racial profiling and criminal profiling.”

The chief explained that just being in “a drug outlet” area of the city at 3 a.m. might constitute reasonable suspicion, which would allow police to pull the driver over. “They can conduct an investigative interview,” Roberts said.

The current law would tend to be on his side, according to a Sept. 9 memo by Assistant Corporation Counsel Nathalie Feola-Guerrieri, in which she said that state law “recognizes that the police officer may factor race and ethnicity in the officer’s determination of either probable cause, reasonable or articulable suspicion, or the investigatory stop of a motor vehicle as long as race is not the sole factor.”

So profiling is legal as long as police can come up with another reason for suspicion in addition to the person’s race.

Roberts said he thinks the proposed amendment in Hartford is an attempt to “change federal policy at the local level.”

One of the co-authors of the ordinance — Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee — confirmed that is indeed part of the agenda.

“Hartford is emerging as a national civil rights leader,” Buttar said, adding that the city is one of 15 that are pushing through similar laws. “Only Berkley is further along.”

While Hartford would be making legal history if the amendment finally passes, Veronica Aiery-Wilson said at the conclusion of the public hearing: “We are not trying to make history. We are just trying to do right by our citizens.”

The new ordinance in Hartford would better protect immigrants from profiling, according to Cotto, who said that when he was growing up, he watched his father being routinely pulled over by police and questioned because of what he believed to be racial profiling. But the way it is worded, no one can be targeted just because of their race, religion, age or sex. It is designed to protect everyone and require that they be suspected of a crime in order for police to begin a close encounter.

The amendment goes so far as to require that police document all such “encounters” and provide the subjects of their investigations with information as to how to file a complaint or commendation regarding the encounter.

While several members of minority groups testified that they had been profiled, some civil rights advocates who weighed in at last week’s public hearing and rally cited a few examples of Caucasians being profiled in the North End, in just the way that police had described (although police insist it’s not profiling).

During an interview on the steps of City Hall after the rally and before the hearing, Community Party cofounder Dan Malo said he had been stopped on Martin Street last May while doing outreach work.

“They wanted to know what I was doing there,” he said. “Obviously, I didn’t fit with the racial makeup of the neighborhood. It’s profiling. It’s not ‘reverse profiling.’ Nobody should have to go through that. The color of somebody’s skin should not be justification for probable cause.”

Mongi Dhaouadi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Connecticut told a story about how a Muslim had been stopped by Hartford Police while waiting for a bus in on his way to the pharmacy to get his medicine and that he was ticketed for loitering, and then harassed because his name was Muhammad.

Sandy Staub, a lawyer from the ACLU, is working with Cotto to draft the wording of the document. She says there must be a “behavioral reason” for police to target a person.

After the hearing, several activists, including Dhaouadi, Buttar, Staub and LaResse Harvey of a Better Way Foundation, who was the key organizer of the coalition, adjourned to a conference room to discuss the progress of the Cotto Amendment.

The proposed amendment may be considered at the City Council’s Dec. 12 meeting,

Cotto said that the biggest change was making the standard for police engaging in stops, frisks, interrogations, searches and arrests to be “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause.”

He told his supporters after the event — which was dominated by proponents of the amendment — that no matter what it takes to get the ordinance passed this time, “We are in for the long haul.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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