License-plate readers posted in busy parts of Stamford are detecting lots of unregistered vehicles on the streets.
But officers are focusing on other things the automated plate readers detect, including vehicles that are stolen, those that may have been used in a crime, and those wanted in investigations by other law enforcement agencies.
That’s fine with Ken Barone, a researcher tasked with helping to establish fair and effective public policies in Connecticut. Barone has been working on reforming the state’s motor vehicle code, which has hundreds of violations.
“It’s been a belief for a long time within some police circles that, years ago, the Department of Motor Vehicles made police officers into tax collectors” by tasking them with identifying motorists who don’t register their cars, forcing them to pay up, Barone said.
“In my assessment, based on 10 years of analysis, if you place a license-plate reader in any neighborhood in any town, you are going to find unregistered vehicles,” he said. “There has always been a misconception that somehow vehicle registration violations are linked to socioeconomic status. But the data shows that police find violations among Hispanic drivers when they go to predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods. And they find violations among white drivers when they go to predominantly white neighborhoods.”
The most common “paperwork issue” cited by police officers is obstruction of a license plate, a statute written to prohibit tinted plate covers, he said.
“But these stops are about the frames around license plates,” Barone said. “About 15,000 people are stopped a year because a frame blocked half of the word ‘Connecticut’ on a plate.”
The question, Barone said, is whether police “are getting the best return on their investment by pulling people over for paperwork issues.”
Traffic enforcement is the most common interaction between police officers and the public, he said. Before COVID, there were about 525,000 traffic stops a year statewide. The number of arrests, by comparison, was 85,000 – less than one-sixth the number of traffic stops.
So, at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, Barone, the associate director, and other researchers have been studying traffic stops. The institute, formed by the state Legislature 20 years ago, is headquartered at the Hartford branch of the University of Connecticut.
“We are obligated to analyze every police department’s motor vehicle stops every year,” Barone said. “We have a database of every traffic stop for all the departments dating to Oct. 1, 2013. Warning tickets, arrests – it all comes to us.”
The data belies some commonly held beliefs about people and their motor vehicles, he said.
“There is zero correlation between paperwork issues, such as vehicle registration, and roadway safety, and there is no evidence that paperwork issues are an indication of crime,” Barone said. “An unregistered vehicle is no more likely to be involved in a hit-and-run, or any other crime, than a registered vehicle.”
The data points police in new directions, he said.
“Right now we have a whole host of police officers in leadership positions who started their careers in the thick of the war on drugs, and the one big tenet of that was to use the motor vehicle code to search cars and get drugs off the streets,” Barone said. “Thirty years later, the data tells us that is not effective. It did not lead to massive reductions in drug use or sales, and it caught a lot of people in a wide net who were not engaged in illegal behavior.”
That damaged public trust in police, he said. But the data identifies a way to rebuild it.
“The research has found consistently that when police focus on stopping people for hazardous driving – speeding, running red lights, running stop signs, distracted driving – the community supports them. People want police to make the roads safe.”
The data shows that hazardous driving is an equal opportunity violation, he said.
“When police look for these types of violations, they find them equally across ethic groups,” Barone said. “We see little to no racial disparity.”
But when “police use the motor vehicle code as a crime reduction tool, and stop lots of cars to get guns and drugs off the street, we see significant racial and ethnic disparities, no effect on the safety of roadways, and reductions in crime are next to nil,” Barone said.
The “hit rate” – how often officers find evidence during a vehicle search – is less than 10 percent when they stop people for a broken taillight, or when a license plate reader indicates a car is unregistered, Barone said.
But the hit rate when officers stop a motorist for hazardous driving is 60 percent, he said.
“When we talk to police officers we tell them, ‘Just do traffic enforcement and the data will support you,’” he said. “There are times when they have to do investigative stops, but they should choose them carefully.”
The institute works with police departments to address racial and ethnic disparities when data identifies them. The institute also provided research for the state’s police transparency task force and racial profiling advisory board. The resulting recommendations are available at CTpolicetransparency.com. The institute’s data can be viewed at ctrp3.org.
Stamford Police Chief Tim Shaw said the department uses license-plate readers to solve the more serious crimes.
“The purpose of the program is not to go after low-hanging fruit. Every violation should be pursued, but we don’t have the manpower for that,” Shaw said. “We check with other departments, and not many are using ‘unregistered vehicles’ as a flag.”