From the Office of State Senator Kevin Witkos
Recently, the State Senate debated legislation that would change the current law prohibiting police officers from stopping drivers based on the color of one’s skin. As a serious and sensitive issue, I strongly believe that racial profiling is inappropriate and wrong. In fact, the practice became illegal in our state in 1999 when the was enacted to clearly define and prohibit its use in traffic stops. This year, supporters of Senate Bill 364, called “An Act Concerning Traffic Stop Information” believe that its passage will enhance compliance with data collection and reporting requirements under existing law. However, I believe that it is the wrong way to accomplish this goal and offered my own solutions to the problem during the debate.
I agree that racial profiling has no place in public safety or policing. As previously stated, the Alvin Penn Act set standards prohibiting this practice. Under this law, every police department is required to collect information on traffic stops and to submit this data to the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney for analysis. This office was then required to compile the data for an annual report. However, this happened once and only once in 2001. Next, in 2004, the state legislature voted to transfer this responsibility to the African American Affairs Commission. Since then, no other annual reports have been issued, and many believe that this legislation could solve the problem for an agency that is said to be underfunded and understaffed.
However, I am concerned over these proposed changes. Senate Bill 364 would create new standards for reporting traffic stop data, including a new standardized form for police officers to fill out. During a stop, officers would also now be required to distribute complaint forms to motorists in case they felt unfairly singled out by reason of race. The legislation would also move collection and analysis responsibility from the African American Affairs Commission to the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM). This office would be given the ability to restrict public safety funding from those police departments that do not comply with the law in an attempt to enforce the measure.
As a police officer, I am all too aware of the troubling implications resulting from this legislation. For example, the new form would complicate future traffic stops, and may even lead to repercussions for public safety if officers decide that traffic stops are no longer worth the potential consequences. It would also take more time to complete a traffic stop, providing further inconvenience to the motorist and officer alike.
In an attempt to improve some of these concerns, I offered numerous amendments on the floor of the Senate Chamber. One such amendment would add “race” to the many other descriptions currently labeled on a driver’s license, such as eye color, age and height. This would aid officers in correct identification as to how someone identifies with a certain racial group. Rather than guessing a person’s race which could be seen as offensive, officers may simply rely on checking the “other” box instead of risking a future complaint being filed. I also suggested that a representative of the police union be present on the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project Advisory Board that would be established through this legislation to advise OPM on the adoption of standards and guidelines to share the viewpoint of the officers making these stops on the street. Unfortunately, none of these common sense amendments gathered enough support to improve the well-intentioned purpose of solving the issue.
After much discussion and debate, I decided to cast my vote against this bill. It ultimately passed out of the Senate, but I believe that we already have the framework in place to deal with racial profiling. If we want to seriously fix the problem, we must simply enforce the current law and ensure that police departments share their traffic stop data for analysis. If the Commission is underfunded and understaffed, we must increase its resources to put together the necessary reports. In any case, this bill now moves to the House of Representatives for further consideration. To learn more about this legislation, please visit the Connecticut General Assembly website at www.cga.ct.gov and search for S.B. 364.
Sen. Witkos (www.SenatorWitkos.com) represents the 8th Senate District, including the communities of Avon, Barkhamsted, Canton, Colebrook, Granby, Hartland, Harwinton, New Hartford, Norfolk, Simsbury and Torrington. He can be reached by phone at 1-800-842-1421 or by email at Kevin.Witkos@cga.ct.gov.