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Willimantic - Lawmakers, human rights advocates and police chiefs gathered with locals Wednesday at Windham Town Hall to discuss changes to the state's anti-discrimination law that requires law enforcement to collect demographic data on the people they pull over for traffic stops and send that data to the state.
Changes most recently went into effect Oct. 1, 2013, and include a complaint process for motorists who believe they were pulled over for a traffic stop based on racial or other profiling, and the inclusion of more law enforcement agencies under the law.
"Today the CHRO (Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities) seeks not only to enforce the laws against discrimination, but also to break down the lingering attitudes that create prejudice, through outreach and education," said Tanya Hughes, executive director of CHRO. "... We are taking aggressive steps to educate and train police officers to effectuate a more balanced and neutral police enforcement throughout the state."
The law, called the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act, was enacted in 1999 and prohibits law enforcement from stopping, detaining or searching any motorist when the stop is motivated solely by race, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation. The impetus for the law was Penn, the late African-American senator from Bridgeport who said he was racially profiled when he was stopped by a police officer while driving in Trumbull in the mid-1990s.
The law was revised several times and requires law enforcement officers from municipal police departments, state police, the Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies with the authority to stop motorists to collect data including why the person was stopped, his or her demographics, and the date and time of the stop. Law enforcement agencies are then required to submit this raw data electronically to the state's Office of Policy and Management.
All police departments except for New London are in compliance with the law, said Kenneth Barone, the policy and research specialist for the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, on Wednesday. The institute is the organization tasked with analyzing the data.
In March, New London Deputy Police Chief Peter Reichard said that the department doesn't put traffic stop data into the state's electronic system because of its own outdated computer system. He said the department has a pending request for $7,800 to upgrade its computer system.
Barone said all police departments should be able to submit the raw data because they have access to a web-based system or a statewide database that all police departments use for other purposes.
The data is important because it will allow the state to analyze trends. For instance, it would be easy to see if one officer were stopping hundreds of people for a missing front license plate but only ticketing black males, Barone said.
"Racial profiling is never acceptable," Barone said. "There is no excuse for it, and law enforcement have plenty of tools in their tool belt to effect change in a community and to combat crime without using racial profiling."
It also creates distrust in the legal system, he said.
If members on a jury have been racially profiled by law enforcement, this could affect how they vote during a trial in which a police officer testifies, he said.
State Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, said having conversations about racial profiling could help address other issues such as domestic violence. There are members of communities that might not feel comfortable going to law enforcement in times of crisis because of racial profiling experiences, she said.
"I think breaking down those barriers and helping victims come forward is critical," Flexer said.
Under the revised law, law enforcement officials must provide motorists with a written notice about their right to file a complaint if they believe they were stopped, detained or searched based solely on their race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or membership in a protected class.
A protected class could include someone with a mental or physical disability, pregnancy, sex or race, said Cheryl Sharp, an attorney for CHRO.
The motorist has 180 days to file the complaint with CHRO. The complaints are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and the police department gets an opportunity to respond to the complaint, Sharp said. The complainant can rebut the police department's statement, and then the case would be investigated. The complaint would also go to the Office of the Chief State's Attorney and the local district attorney, Barone said.
The complaint process is relatively new, but there are about 10 complaints working their way through CHRO, and about three to four of those have had administrative hearings, said Charles Krich, principal attorney for CHRO.
The revised law also gives the state "teeth." If the law enforcement agency is abiding by the law or is using racial profiling, the state can withhold state funding from the agency, Barone said.