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Pay serious attention to policing recommendations

How can the state continue to build a law enforcement system that is fairer, impartial in carrying out its duties, better focuses police work on matters most likely to protect society, and is held accountable when it abuses its powers?

Tackling these important questions was the assignment of a task formed by the state legislature that began its work two years ago. That job gained greater importance following the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minnesota police officer. The event focused the nation's attention on the troubling reality that in too many instances, Americans were not treated equally by police. People of color, and particularly Black men, were more likely to be pulled over and those encounters were more likely to end with police using lethal force.

As the task force continued its work, and in the wake of the Floyd killing and the demonstrations it generated, the legislature approved a series of police reforms. Among those was creation of an inspector general to investigate the use of force by police, removing that responsibility from local prosecutors who work with police daily and depend on their cooperation. An inspector general was among the early recommendations of the task force, too important to await its final report.

This month the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force issued that report. Its recommendations recognize the need to bring uniformity to the process of filing civilian complaints for alleged police misconduct. It wants to make those complaints, and the outcome of the internal investigations into them, easily accessible. It asks that the legislature mandate that police departments post their policies and procedures, including for the filing of complaints, on their websites.

We wholeheartedly endorse this approach and urge legislative action. When it comes to clarity of policies and procedures, we ask departments to act without waiting for mandates. Some have, and for that we applaud them.

The task force sees the advantages of reducing the number of vehicle stops — situations often stressful and unpredictable for both the officer and the driver — to those truly necessary for the furtherance of public safety.

Connecticut police conduct more than 500,000 traffic stops annually. Since 2013, Connecticut has collected and analyzed data for over 3.5 million traffic stops. It shows a disparate impact on Black and Hispanic individuals. Violations often are not the result of criminal intent but financial problems that prioritize paying rent and buying groceries over bringing a vehicle fully into compliance.

Minor vehicle issues — the deodorizer tree hanging from a mirror, a malfunctioning taillight, a tinted window that borders on technical legality — can provide an officer the excuse to pull someone over for being "suspicious" or "out of place" in an affluent area, contributing to prejudicial police conduct that can be intentional or the result of unconscious bias.

The task force, with representatives from law enforcement, the judicial system, the community and government, reached a consensus that stops for cell phone use, texting, seatbelt, speed, stop sign, traffic control signal and other moving violations should remain unchanged and be enforced.

But it calls for defining other violations as "secondary," and not a reason to pull over a vehicle. Examples of proposed secondary violations include mirror hangings, tinted windows, the displaying of a registration plate tucked in the rear window rather than at the rear of the car as officially required, a taillight out or a lapsed registration.

These recommendations are on the right course. Arguments can be made — and should be debated by the legislature with the help of public input — as to where the lines are drawn in defining violations as "secondary." But focusing vehicle enforcement on clear issues of safety can be a win-win for police and the public, while ending "enforcement" that is thinly disguised targeting of minorities.

Finally, the task force is smart in recognizing where more information is needed. It is becoming widely recognized that police are often thrust into situations that are really mental health and substance abuse issues and can be better and more safely handled as such.

The task force calls for a university-level study to analyze 911 dispatch to better understand what percentage of calls could be more appropriately be directed to 211 response, which connects callers to health and human services assistance in their community. It would be up to policymakers to act on those findings.

This task force has well fulfilled its mission, which cannot be said of every task force the legislature appoints. The legislature should give its recommendations the serious consideration they deserve.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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