One Police Department's Response to Data on Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops | Connecticut Public Radio

One Police Department's Response to Data on Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops

May 11, 2016

Policing is complicated and nuanced. What's the role of data in planning how a community is served?

The state of Connecticut is releasing new data this week on police traffic stops and racial disparities. In advance of that release, WNPR is taking a closer look at the interactions between police and the people they pull over.

In this second story in a series, we visited a police department that has taken a hard look at its numbers and made some changes.

On the Road in Hamden

Hamden Police Sergeant Mike Cirillo stood in front of the handful of officers at his 4:00 pm roll call. They were a diverse, young group, and he was catching up on the day’s activities before they got moving.

As they got ready to leave, the officers picked their neighborhoods, like they normally do. But normal is changing.

Statistics released last year showed that Hamden was one department with strong racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops. And the data showed that black drivers were much more likely to get pulled over for defective equipment -- things like a busted tail light, the kind of legal pretext an officer could use to justify a stop and then check for something else, like drugs or guns.

“There were certain data sets captured in the overall project that were suggestive,” said Hamden Police Chief Thomas Wydra. “If you were in the black population, you had a higher chance of being stopped.”

But new data from the following year shows that Hamden’s officers made far fewer traffic stops than they had the year before. And they were no longer disproportionately stopping people of color.

Wydra said he didn’t issue any written directives. But he did talk to his officers and said his priority is safety, not tail light stops.

“The area of defective equipment enforcement was a conversation topic for a long time after this report was produced,” he said. “And I think that we had a lot of officers shift their mindset away from enforcing those violations. The vast majority of officers are good people. Nobody wants to be accused of bias-based policing.”

And Wydra said he doesn’t think a lot of cops engage in it.

"If there are strategies and tactics that create a perception that the police are being unfair or are unfairly targeting minorities, than that’s going to undermine your ability to reduce crime."
Michael Lawlor

Sgt. Cirillo agreed. He also said this is a tense time in policing, where videos of officers making traffic stops often hit the internet -- quickly. And it has them nervous. Cirillo said cops who have years on the job may choose not to make a traffic stop if it means risking it all.

Does that affect the numbers? Perhaps.

“A lot of guys don’t want to be tonight’s YouTube sensation, either,” Cirillo said. “The car stops are being sacrificed for, I guess you could call it the general good, and the preservation of the job at this point. A lot of guys just don’t -- like I said before, they just don’t want to put themselves out there to that point where their actions could be interpreted as racist or wrong.”

The Second Year of Data

Connecticut is about to release its second annual analysis of hundreds of thousands of traffic stops to try and get a data-specific answer to this question: Do the state’s police officers disproportionately stop minorities behind the wheel?

In Hamden, the answer depended on the year. Two years ago, Hamden made just over 1,000 defective equipment stops. Last year, that number plummeted. Just 379.

Also, the number of white people pulled over for traffic stops stayed constant over the two years; the number of black people pulled over fell by 25 percent.

As a result, researchers now say that Hamden’s racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops have all but disappeared.

Michael Lawlor is the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice issues, and has had a hand in the data review. He said there may be an innocent explanation for disparities in some towns, and there may not be. In either case, Lawlor said this isn’t about pointing a finger. It’s about improving policing.

“If there are strategies and tactics that create a perception that the police are being unfair or are unfairly targeting minorities, than that’s going to undermine your ability to reduce crime,” he said. “So you always have to balance the police presence and the police activities against how they’re being perceived in the community.”

The "Human Element" of Policing

Police Chief Wydra thinks the numbers from the state are worth studying. But he also said they may not tell the whole story.

Policing is complicated and nuanced. Some neighborhoods have high call volumes and get more policing. Some neighborhoods have more people of color. Some cops like to stop more cars. Wydra said the outcome is predictable.

“If you have more police officers, the likelihood is you’ll have more stops,” Wydra said. “And I think that’s what’s somewhat missing from the report -- the human element from the police officer’s perspective, also.”

Wydra said he sees this as a time for conversations -- ones about how police are perceived in minority communities, and about the role of implicit bias in policing.

“All humans possess subconscious thoughts and subconscious biases, and it’s okay to admit it,” he said. “So it’s important for police officers to understand that their experiences as police officers can either reshape or remold them and cause them to make decisions that they’re not intending to make.”

These aren’t easy conversations. But chiefs like him need to have them with their departments and with the people they serve, Wydra said. The data is one way to start.

State officials released their second analysis of police data on Thursday -- the subject of WNPR's third story in a series on race and police traffic stops.

Read the first story in the series, about a man suing the Bridgeport police about an allegedly unlawful search.