HARTFORD – A debate over whether a part of the police-accountability law passed in 2020 is an effective tool in reducing racial disparities in law enforcement or is stifling the ability of police to do their job dominated a State Capitol public hearing Wednesday.
Much of the discussion before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee focused on newly-proposed changes to the law that would prohibit police from stopping drivers for “low-level” equipment violations such as broken headlights, improperly displayed license plates and having window tinting darker than state regulations allow.
The changes were included in a recently published report by the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, which cited data that Black and Hispanic drivers are disproportionately pulled over for such violations.
“The task force ultimately decided that a single headlight, a single brake light, a single tail light or the license plate light being out didn’t justify a primary stop by a law enforcement officer,” said Ken Barone, Associate Director at UConn’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, which led a study of the issue. “Police aren’t stopping every single car for a lighting violation that they see all the time. They’re still choosing when to make that stop.”
Several Republican members of the committee argued that the changes would hamper police’s effectiveness and endanger the public.
“I don’t understand why the focus here is to lower the bar for public safety,” said Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield. “I think it’s a big public safety issue to make sure people’s lights are working.”
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, took it a step further, describing the accountability bill and the proposed changes as examples of police being “demonized” and burdened with excessive and largely unwarranted restrictions.
“I think the pendulum went too far with the bill we passed that summer and I voted against it and now I’m seeing it play out,” he said.” I think if we continue along that path we’re going to be in a worse predicament.”
Police accountability task force Chairman Daryl McGraw said the proposed changes and other recommendations in its report were based primarily on input from residents.
“The importance of hearing the voice of the community is super important,” he said during an exchange with Kissel. “If you take anything away from this it’s to make sure that the community and impacted people are at the table at all times when these discussions are happening.”
Similar to other legislation enacted around the nation in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while being subdued by police in Minneapolis, the police accountability act placed limits on how police can restrain a suspect, mandated updated use-of-force training and required police officers to undergo drug testing and periodic mental health evaluations to maintain their certification.
It also required police to employ body and dashboard cameras, and created an Office of the Inspector General to investigate cases involving the use of deadly force by officers.
Those changes received virtually no attention at Wednesday’s hearing that featured over an hour of debate on the motor vehicle enforcement issue.
State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, was one of the only committee members to back the task force’s conclusion that minorities are unfairly targeted for the equipment violations that are proposed to be curtailed.
“As somebody who never gets stopped because of her color, it’s important for us to call it out when it is there,” said Palm, who is White. “I just think that’s terribly important for us all at this point.”
Several committee members said banning police from stopping a driver with a headlight or tail light or brake light out would remove the means by which most drivers are made aware of the faulty equipment.
“If I can’t stop them for the headlight, what’s going to force them to fix the headlight?” said retired police officer Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, adding that the changes are ill-timed as police are returning to robust traffic-enforcement that had decreased by more than half during the height of the pandemic in 2020.
“Police are literally just starting to stop cars again and we have a whole new round of ‘let’s see what we can do to make a police officer’s job harder,’” Champagne said. “Every time we make a police officer’s job harder they’re not going to do as much. At what point do we say enough is enough?”
State Rep. Greg Howard, a Republican and a police officer in Stonington, said: “If these particular violations are not important enough for police officers to stop people for them, then why not just change the law? Why not just require one headlight? Why not just get rid of the tint law and all the other ones on the list?”
UConn’s Barone said that defective lighting is a factor in less than one-percent of accidents, which he said are predominantly caused by speeding and erratic driving.
“When cops focus on behaviors that contribute to crashes there is little racial disparity,” he said. “When they start to use the motor vehicle code as part of a crime reduction tool, or they focus more on these lower-level equipment or administrative offenses that we know do not contribute to motor-vehicle accidents, we tend to see a larger racial disparity.”