Better data needed on profiling issue

An analysis of traffic-stop information collected by New London Police Department officers in 2011 suggests city police did not practice racial profiling when deciding who to pull over. But evidence that officers were more likely to search members of our minority communities during those stops is reason for some self-examination as to whether citizens receive impartial treatment.

The NLPD deserves some praise for the fact that The Day had data to evaluate. The Alvin Penn Act, adopted in 1999, mandated all police departments in Connecticut to collect data on every traffic stop, including the driver's race, age and gender, to uncover any biases in traffic-stop patterns. Police record this information on so-called "yellow cards."

Unfortunately, with the exception of a 2001 report by the Chief State's Attorney's Office, no one has been looking at the cards, never mind analyzing the data. Many departments realized this and knowing there were no repercussions for non-compliance, didn't bother with the cards. To its credit, NLPD continued to do so, and since 2009 has scanned the cards into the department's computer system, though it has not developed a database to analyze the information.

Responding to anecdotal reports from citizens that racial-profiling does exist in the city, The Day hired an outside firm to analyze the information from 7,600 yellow cards filled out in 2011. As reported in a story that appears in today's edition, whites, who make up 49 percent of the city's population, represented about 58 percent of the traffic stops. Hispanics, who make up 28 percent of the population, and blacks at 17 percent of the city's population, represented 21 percent and 19 percent of the stops, respectively.

A word of caution; the system leaves room for error. The data is only as good as the accuracy of the information recorded by police. The cards do not include names, so there is no means of double checking accuracy. Officers cannot ask about a driver's race, so which box to check is based on subjective observations.

Still, the finding of no apparent profiling in police stops is encouraging. Cause for some concern, however, is the data showing minorities were searched 6.7 percent of the time, whites 3.4 percent. The obvious conclusion is that in some cases race alone leads to greater suspicion by some officers.

Yet all indications are that this is a city, and a department, that is trying to do the right thing. On his first day in office in December 2011, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio issued an executive order prohibiting police from "the profiling of persons based upon their racial, religious, sexual and/or ethnic background." That was departmental policy already, but it sent the right message that the first mayor elected under the change to a mayoral government was making it a priority to assure all citizens received equal treatment.

This past November the department issued a "general order" specifically prohibiting profiling and requiring an annual review of citizen complaints for any indications of profiling. Options to address evidence of profiling include remedial training, counseling and disciplinary actions.

At the state level, a new law passed last year updates the procedures to collect traffic-stop data and analyze it for trends. The responsibility to carry out the analysis is now with the Office of Policy and Management, and it is working with a diverse, 30-member advisory group to implement the plan. If successful, a report due in July 2014 would provide a comprehensive analysis of racial profiling in the state.

At some point such analysis may show that profiling is no longer an issue and police can be relieved of the somewhat burdensome data collection responsibility. But lawmakers can only make that decision using reliable information. This time, perhaps, they will get it.

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