To Reduce Bias, Some Police Departments Are Rethinking Traffic Stops

Jul 25, 2016
Originally published on July 25, 2016 7:51 pm

Though it's his job to enforce the law, Thomas Wydra — police chief of Hamden, Conn. — is not so sure about the laws on defective equipment.

"You may have something hanging from your rearview mirror. That's technically a violation," Wydra says. "You have an attachment on your license plate. That's technically a violation."

"It's a legal reason to stop the vehicle," he continues, "even though, in the officer's mind, that's not the most important reason why they're stopping the car."

Wydra says officers can use these stops to look for things like guns and drugs. But if an officer finds one illegal gun in 20 stops, is that effective?

"I just don't know," Wydra says. "And I think that's part of the debate here on this topic and, really, in the country. Are these stops worth it?"

There's also another question: Are they fair?

As part of a recent state effort to collect and analyze traffic stop data, Hamden's department was singled out for stopping minority drivers at disproportionately higher rates than whites. These stops were inflating the numbers.

Wydra decided to re-evaluate. He spoke with his officers and told them he cared more about speeding, running red lights and road safety than he did tinted windows.

"I think that we had a lot of officers shift their mindset away from enforcing those violations," Wydra says. "The vast majority of officers are good people. Nobody wants to be accused of bias-based policing."

A year later, Hamden cut its defective equipment stops down dramatically — from 19 percent to just 8 percent of all of its motor vehicle stops. And the number of black drivers pulled over fell by 25 percent.

"They went from being on the list of the top 10 towns with the largest racial disparities to being nowhere close to the top of the list," says Ken Barone, a researcher with the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project.

He says the most recent research shows minorities are more than twice as likely to be searched as whites. But those searches aren't as effective.

"Illegal contraband is found as a result of searching white drivers significantly more than black or Hispanic drivers," Barone says.

Searches of white drivers turned up contraband 38 percent of the time. Searches of minority drivers? Around 29 percent.

Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, says stops for defective equipment promote bad faith.

"So, when they get pulled over," he says, "their frustration level is, 'Here we go again. I'm being pulled over for some foolish thing so that they can try to see if there's some other violation they can get me on.'"

Dr. Cato Laurencin, a physician and a professor at the University of Connecticut, questions the stops, too.

"If you can pull over someone for having a rear license plate illuminator light that's dim, as I've been pulled over in the past, yes, you can pull over someone for almost anything," Laurencin says.

Laurencin, who is black, is a member of the board overseeing the state's research. He thinks discretionary stops shouldn't be discretionary at all.

"Because it is a source of bias and it really ... can have really grave consequences," he says.

Laurencin says these are conversations the country needs to have. Looking at the data is one way to start.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When a police officer pulls someone over for something like a busted tail light, it's called a defective equipment stop. New data in Connecticut shows these types of stops affect minorities at higher rates than whites. That data also shows the stops aren't especially effective at turning up contraband. We're going to hear about a town in the state that's rethought its approach. Here's Jeff Cohen from member station, WNPR.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: Thomas Wydra is police chief in Hamden, and while it's his job to enforce the law, he's not so sure about the laws on defective equipment.

CHIEF THOMAS WYDRA: You may have something hanging from your rearview mirror. That's technically a violation. You have an attachment on your license plate. That's technically a violation. It's a legal reason to stop the vehicle even though, in the officer's mind, that's not the most important reason why they're stopping the car.

COHEN: Wydra says officers can use these stops to look for things like guns and drugs. But if an officer finds one illegal gun in 20 stops, is that effective?

WYDRA: I just don't know, and I think that's part of the debate here on this topic and really in the country. Are these stops worth it?

COHEN: There's also another question. Are they fair? As part of a recent state effort to collect and analyze traffic stop data, Hamden's department was singled out for stopping minority drivers at disproportionately higher rates than whites. Inflating the numbers were these stops. Wydra decided to reevaluate. He spoke with his officers and told them he cared more about speeding, running red lights and road safety than he did tinted windows.

WYDRA: I think that we had a lot of officers shift their mindset away from enforcing those violations. The vast majority of officers are good people. Nobody wants to be accused of bias-based policing.

COHEN: A year later Hamden cut its defective equipment stops down dramatically from 19 percent of all of its motor vehicle stops to just 8 percent, and the number of black people pulled over fell by 25 percent.

KEN BARONE: They went from being on the list of the top 10 towns with the largest racial disparities to being nowhere close to the top of the list.

COHEN: That's Ken Barone, a researcher with the state's Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project. He says the most recent research shows minorities are more than twice as likely to be searched as whites, but those searches aren't as effective.

BARONE: Illegal contraband is found as a result of searching white drivers significantly more than black or Hispanic drivers.

COHEN: Searches of whites turned up contraband 38 percent of the time. Searches of minorities - around 29 percent. Jack McDevitt is the director of the Institute for Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. He says stops for defective equipment promote bad faith.

JACK MCDEVITT: So when they get pulled over, their frustration level is, here we go again; I'm being pulled over for some foolish thing so that they can try to see if there's some other violation they can get me on.

COHEN: Dr. Cato Laurencin questions the stops, too.

CATO LAURENCIN: If you can pull over someone for having a rear license plate illuminator light that's dim, as I've been pulled over in the past - yes, you can pull over someone for almost anything.

COHEN: Laurencin is a physician and a professor at UConn. He's also a member of the board overseeing the state's research. He's black, and he thinks discretionary stops shouldn't be discretionary at all.

LAURENCIN: Because it is a source of bias, and it really can have really grave consequences.

COHEN: Laurencin says these are conversations the country needs to have. Looking at the data is one way to start. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.