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The Usual Suspects

Tragedy struck on August 9th in Ferguson, Missouri, when a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, eighteen-year-old black male. Within days of the shooting, thousands of enraged citizens took to the streets in protest, triggering a national discussion on contemporary race relations.  From slavery and segregation in America’s past, to cases of racial profiling today, racism has always been a part of American society.  Many of us, however, like to think that racial conflict has significantly decreased in the United States.  Unfortunately, the national response to the Brown shooting – and the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012 – indicate that racial tension is still a regrettable, yet ever-present, part of America’s social system.

Racial profiling is not just an issue in Missouri, as no state has completely solved the problem.  Connecticut has also come under fire for civil rights violations by the police force. In 2012, the Department of Justice arrested four East Haven policemen for beating cuffed Latino suspects and intimidating those who tried to report them. The incident reinvigorated civil rights conversations in Connecticut, resulting in a number of measures to combat racial profiling.  This included the creation of the Racial Profiling Advisory Board, which investigates whether or not police pull over a disproportionate number of minorities. The Board has spent the past two years determining how to collect accurate traffic data and how to make such data available to the public.

In an interview with The Politic, Central Connecticut State University Policy Specialist Ken Barone emphasized the importance of traffic stops.  He explained that there are more than 700,000 traffic stops in Connecticut each year, making them the most common encounter law enforcement has with civilians. He then proposed a hypothetical: “Imagine you are a black male on a jury. You or someone you care about has had a negative experience with law enforcement while driving. Now the case you are judging rests on the testimony of a law enforcement officer, but you don’t trust the testimony because you don’t trust law enforcement. Suddenly, the entire criminal justice system begins to erode.”

In June, the Board discovered that of the 303,863 Connecticut drivers who were pulled over between October 2013 and April 2014, 14% were Black and 12% were Latino.  However, only 8% of the state’s driving population was Black, and just 10% was Latino at the time. Though according to Police Chief Douglas Fuchs, another Board member, the statistics are actually misleading. He stated, “You cannot use census or work data to determine a state’s driving population. The town of Farmington, for example, is mostly white. Farmington is home to a mall, a hospital, and a college, so many people drive through that area. If you simply take Farmington’s census and employment data, the resulting driving population would be inaccurate. The same goes for the state population.” In an August meeting, the Racial Profiling Advisory Board concluded that measuring the estimated makeup of civilian drivers during the workday would enable a more accurate reading of the data.

The Board’s activity, along with a law passed in June by Governor Malloy that requires officers to report when and on whom they use their Taser guns, are useful for detecting trends that lead to police-minority tensions. According to Barone, these new initiatives show that “Connecticut is working to keep its law enforcement agents accountable. One of the big advantages of requiring agencies to collect data on these activities is that they take actions that might be unconscious and make them conscious. The fact that a form has to be filled out on why someone was pulled over, the person’s race, home address, etcetera, is a subtle reminder that the state is concerned about racial profiling and that the state is watching.” The Board hopes that this reminder will reduce the disproportionate targeting of minorities at traffic stops, which would help to prevent discord from developing between police and civilians.

There is no doubt that Connecticut is ahead of the curve when it comes to combatting racial profiling. Board member Glenn Cassis of the African American Affairs Commission explained, “We’re one of a few states, maybe a half dozen, that are collecting and analyzing traffic stop data to this extent. Most states in the country are not close to addressing it in the way we are in terms of having data collected and analyzed. There really is no doubt that we’re ahead of the curve in this regard.” The Board is set to release a new report in September, in which traffic stop data will be broken down on a town-by-town basis. Beyond this report, the Board still has work to do. Chief Fuchs explained, “Mathematicians recently told me that their margin of error was 10% when calculating the estimated driving population in Connecticut. That margin of error has to decrease before we can come to any real conclusions.”

Events in Ferguson will undoubtedly increase interest in the September report. Mr. Cassis explained, “People will want to see what Connecticut is doing because of the Michael Brown incident. In Ferguson, the feds are doing a review of traffic stops. They will probably point out that the town was utilizing traffic stop fines to supplement their budget, which is a gross misuse of power and much different from what goes on here in Connecticut. But once someone brings up racial profiling, it takes on a life of its own.”

Connecticut had its moment of awakening in 2012 – one that was fortunately less traumatic than the events in Ferguson. Because of forward-thinking leaders, the state has been fighting racial profiling ever since. Looking toward the future, Connecticut is more prepared than ever to combat racial profiling. Traffic stops are part of the battle, but Mr. Cassis added, “The Board has also led to the training of law enforcement agents across the state. Members of each police station attended racial profiling sessions and subsequently trained the rest of their stations.”

One can only hope that Missouri’s political leadership will respond to the shooting of Michael Brown in a manner similar to the way in which Connecticut responded to the East Haven incident in 2012.  Mr. Cassis believes, “States like Missouri, California, and Colorado should establish a Board like ours to try to take away the impression of discrimination that people of color often have. The reality is that we are all working toward the same goal: to improve the quality of life for all citizens.” With America closely watching, Missouri has a chance to follow Connecticut’s lead and enact change that restores order to the city of Ferguson and restores trust in Missouri’s police system.