By Robert Cyr
Legal experts and civil rights specialists are saying a recent law that strengthens existing but neglected anti-racial-profiling legislation is long overdue, but it’s still too early to say whether police are in fact pulling over Latinos and other minorities based on their race.
The bill came just months after four East Haven police officers were arrested by the U.S. Justice Dept. for allegedly targeting and harassing Latinos.
An Act Concerning Traffic Stop Information was signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy this month and requires the state to create a standardized form for police to use to record the age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity of the driver. (The bill can be read in its entirety at the legislature’s website.)
“This is a real problem that deserves a real solution, and my administration is committed to carrying out the spirit and letter of this law,” Malloy said in a statement.
In the last legislative session, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut pushed to put teeth into the Penn Act, but is not involved in a racial profiling civil suit, said ACLU spokesperson Jeanne Leblanc.
The Penn Act was named for state Sen. Alvin Penn, an African-American legislator who said he was racially profiled by Trumbull police. The recently passed law differs from the Penn Act by making the OPM responsible for data collection and processing.
According to the OPM website, the state’s anti-racial profiling law, “The Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act,” took effect in 1999 and required police to collect racial data on all traffic stops and report to the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. The first and only year the Chief State’s Attorney’s office issued the report was in 2001. The legislature gave the reporting duty to The African American Affairs Commission, which has not reported statistics since 2001. OPM representatives were not available for comment.
ACLU Legal Director Sandra Staub said her organization was looking forward to the “full implementation” of the 1999 act “so that the state of Connecticut can finally identify, quantify and begin to eliminate racial profiling. The recent changes to the law should help make that happen.”
Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission Executive Director Werner Oyanadel is a member of the Prohibition Project Advisory Board for the new law, which he said differs from the Penn Act in that it imposes a penalty for non-compliance. Police departments that do not collect and submit traffic stop data to OPM face lessened state funding, he said.
Oyanadel is part of a subcommittee working toward a profiling form that studies data collection and analysis. One of his chief aims as a Latino advocate is to get “Latino” as a designation on the data collection form. Police have been incorrectly labeling Latinos as Caucasians, according to recent studies of state police procedures, he said.
He also said the advisory board is looking at incorporating a form given to motorists that explains how they can submit a complaint to an independent, as-yet named group if they think they’ve been the target of racial profiling. He could not say how soon the forms would be finished and enter mandated use.
“We have had people from the Latino community bring to our attention that police have been literally abusive to our community,” Oyanadel said. “This is a work in progress, but it’s moving fairly quickly. Our thought is that if we develop a good standardized method, we will be able to start collecting data and actually get results from it.”
The 10-member board, which allows for an unspecified number of designated positions, also includes representatives from the African-American Affairs Commission, the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, according to the bill.
William Dunlap, a law professor at Quinnipiac University, said the act concerning traffic stops forces awareness, if even in retrospect, of the race of people police are pulling over, and the recognition of possible patterns of bias or harassment in any form, including against sexuality and religion.
“It’s definitely a good thing, but it’s too soon to say whether this will be effective,” Dunlap said. “Most importantly, this creates a paper trail to help people who think they may be the victim of racial targeting. It’s designed to identify any activity that suggests police are picking people out.”
The Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, in a statement issued after a February Hartford Courant article that investigated the failings of police to address the Penn Act, supported anti-racial-profiling legislation and was “concerned not only with the conclusions of this investigation, but also with the possibility that the problem may be more widespread.”
According to Malloy, his administration has already started taking some of the steps required by the law. Last year, Malloy said in a statement, he tasked the Office of Policy and Management to partner with Central Connecticut State University to create the advisory group called for in the bill, and they have begun to develop standardized methods and guidelines to improve collection of racial profiling data.
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