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 first story of a series, we speak with a man who is suing the Bridgeport police for an allegedly unlawful search.
Woodrow Vereen and the Bridgeport Police
It was a year ago. The little league game was over, the dinner at Beverly’s Pizza was complete, and Woodrow Vereen was driving his two young boys across Bridgeport for an ice cream at Rita’s when he coasted through a yellow light.
That’s when he saw police cruisers with their sirens on. He pulled over to let them pass. But they didn’t.
“I was surprised that they pulled behind me,” Vereen said. But the yellow light was just the beginning. Vereen, who is black, didn’t have proof of insurance -- he was in his wife’s car, and, when he called her, she told him she had left the new insurance paperwork on the kitchen table at home.
There were two officers there: Keith Ruffin and Carlos Vazquez. Eventually, Ruffin came to Vereen’s car with a question.
Vereen remembered his questions: "'Is there anything illegal in the car? Do you have any weapons in the car?' And I said: 'No. Why do you ask that?'And he was like, 'Do you mind if I search the car?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, I do mind if you search the car.'"
Vereen said the officer then directed him out of the car, and ordered him to put his hands on the trunk, which he did.
He was afraid to do anything else. With his hands on the trunk as Ruffin searched him, Vereen could see his children looking back at him.
"And then I make eye contact with my sons, who are now turned around out of their car seat, looking in the rearview, like, Daddy, is everything okay?" Vereen said. "So, I’m talking to them, wording, everything’s okay. I’m fine. Just talking to the officer."
Then, even though Vereen told the officer that he did not consent to a search of his car, the officer searched it anyway, he said.
"He’s all in the glove compartment, everything, looking all in there," Vereen said. "Doesn’t even acknowledge the kids, say, 'How you doing?' Nothing like that."
And then it was over.
"And then he just comes back to the car and says, 'Here’s your ticket, you can dispute it in court; have a good day.'"
Vereen did dispute the ticket. His lawyer said a judge threw it out. But it’s not the ticket that bothers Vereen. It’s the alleged conduct of the police.
"I felt like I had no power in front of my sons," he said in an interview. "And I felt like I was almost emasculated in front of them, in a way... They were doing what they wanted to do, hoping to find something, and they didn’t.”
This all happened a year ago. I met Vereen and his attorney Dan Barrett last week after Vereen decided to sue the two officers involved for violating his constitutional rights when they searched him and his car.
City of Bridgeport
Barrett is the legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. He thinks the case is pretty straightforward.
"Anyone who watched a police drama on television could walk you through and say, gee, don’t the police need a reason before they pull somebody out, frisk them, and then search the car?" Barrett said. "And the answer is: yes. It’s that magical phrase: probable cause."
A spokesman for the city of Bridgeport declined to comment, other than to say that "we stand by the actions of the Bridgeport Police officers involved in this complaint."
The city, which isn’t a defendant in the case, said it will respond in court. The officers also declined to comment.
Measuring Whether Race Plays a Role
While Vereen’s complaint alleges violations of federal law, the state has a law of its own: the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act. It stops law enforcement from stopping, detaining, or searching motorists when the stop is motivated by things such as race. It also instructs police departments to collect data about their traffic stops for the state to analyze.
Michael Lawlor, the governor’s under secretary for criminal justice issues, said there have long been anecdotes about how minorities got different treatment than their white peers during traffic stops. Now, in some departments, there’s data to back that up.
“These are just data, right? And they show that there’s something unusual in certain places,” Lawlor said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s racial profiling or racism or racial bias or implicit bias. It means that there’s something different. And why that is needs to be determined."
Last year, the first analysis involved 620,000 stops in the year ending September 30, 2014. It found evidence to show that some departments in the state treated racial and ethnic minorities differently than their white peers during traffic stops.
As for Bridgeport, last year’s report showed that while the city had a relatively low rate of stopping drivers, it had a high rate of searching cars once they’re stopped. Statewide, 2.9 percent of traffic stops resulted in searches; in Bridgeport, more than eleven percent did.
Vereen, who works for the state judicial department and is also a music minister in two churches, suspects that the fact that he is black played a role.
“I think it comes back to the implicit bias,” he said. “You see a certain person who looks a certain way, dressed a certain way, and it comes and you kind of see it in the movies and you say, oh, yeah, that guy might be up to no good. Let me just go ahead and ask...Just to fish for something bigger. I think that he saw me and decided to take a chance.”
On Deciding to Sue
That night, back in 2015, Vereen ended up taking his boys to get that ice cream they wanted. The next morning, he woke up in time to hear his three-year-old explain the stop to his mother. Here's what he heard.
“‘And Dad, they took him out of the car, and they said, Dad, you got to get out. And then they started touching him, and they were patting him, and then they said, you got to stand over there. And they were in the car, and they were bad. You know, and he’s three,” Vereen said. “And that’s what he took from that experience.”
Vereen could have walked away from the incident. But he said that because of his sons, he can’t.
“I need to let them know that they don’t need to accept disrespect,” he said. “And if they feel like they’ve been violated, there are respectful ways that you can bring that to light.”
The state plans to release its new data on racial disparities in traffic stops on Thursday.
Read WNPR's second story in the series, about one police department’s reaction to the heightened focus on its strategies on the street.