CLINTON – Police Chief Vincent DeMaio said he asked the Center for Policing Equity to examine his department five years ago because he thought a better understanding of its stops and arrests could help bridge the trust gap that was becoming clear between police and the public.
The initial results show that Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped, searched and arrested by Clinton Police at higher rates than White drivers – racial disparities seen in police departments across the country.
But what the top-line data doesn’t show is why those disparities persist in Clinton. That’s the question the center wants to answer, and it wants the Clinton community to be engaged in the discussion, said Evan Riddick, a strategist with the center and former Philadelphia police officer.
“We really can’t tell a story, and we really can’t push policing forward without analyzing proper data to push the conversation forward,” Riddick said.
DeMaio said he wants the community to know that the department cares about them, and they care about being fair and equitable, and treating people with “courtesy, professionalism and respect.”
“It’s important for us to let people know that this is a concern, and it’s a concern that we take seriously,” DeMaio said. “We don’t stand for discrimination, we don’t stand for disparate treatment, and that’s why we voluntarily entered this program.”
The Center for Policing Equity will give a virtual presentation Wednesday at 6 p.m. on the key findings from their initial assessment of Clinton’s data, and talk about where they can explore further. And on Thursday at 6 p.m. they’ll be hosting a community roundtable at the Henry Carter Hull Library to hear from residents.
Matt Graham, a data analyst with the center, said the key findings drawn the initial data show that Black people are searched 2.6 times as often as White people, but are found with contraband at the same rate. And Hispanic people are searched 2.1 times as often, and found with contraband less often.
The center is going to dive deeper into the data to try to understand why that is, Graham said. A common trend among police departments is that Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped more often for minor infractions like a burnt out taillight – stops that are often a pretext to search a vehicle, he said.
“Those are a couple of places that we see where making policy changes like de-prioritizing those minor stop reasons like equipment, license and registration, it can really reduce those disparities,” Graham said.
Community engagement is key, said Graham. The point of the process is for the community to guide a conversation about exactly what responsibilities they want their police to have, what they want the police to be doing, and what kinds of calls they want police to respond to.
“Pretty much every department we see is short-staffed, there’s a major issue with hiring and retaining officers,” Graham said. “But what we see is there’s a lot of opportunity to shift calls that police don’t need to respond to to deal with that capacity issue. That’s one of the main areas we’d love to see community feedback, really guiding what they want their police department to look like.”
DeMaio said that he became interested in the center five years ago ,when members of the department went to a talk at Yale with the center co-founder Phillip Goff.
DeMaio said that it had started becoming apparent that there were gaps in trust and perception between police and the communities they serve, before the killing of George Floyd and protests against police violence in 2020 made those divisions even more clear.
DeMaio said a “light bulb” went off listening to Goff, and he thought having a third party come in and look at all the data the department has on traffic stops, searches, arrests, use of force and more could help broaden the department’s perspective and give it a better understanding of where to put its resources.
“It’s very easy to kind of get tunnel vision and think about, well we think we’re doing this good, and we think we’re doing this okay, and nobody’s really saying anything against it,” DeMaio said. “But those people [who have a problem] may not be willing to share that information with you, but they may be willing to share that with a third party.”
DeMaio said that one factor skewing racial profiling data collected by that state is that shoreline towns attracting large numbers of out-of-town visitors like Clinton have their stops and arrests measured against the town’s population. In Clinton the population is 88 percent white, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the people they are policing, he said.
“For Clinton, the Clinton Crossing Outlets, which is right off the highway, is a huge draw that nobody really thinks about,” DeMaio said. “But at the time, it was drawing nearly 4 million people a year into town, and it’s one of our higher drivers of crime because of its location.”
One of the main questions DeMaio wants the center to explore further is their finding that Clinton police search Hispanic drivers more than twice as often as white drivers. He said he thinks one of the main drivers is shoplifting at the outlets, which is a big driver of calls to police in Clinton.
“We’ll have a description of persons and vehicles and we’ll see them getting onto the highway in close proximity,” DeMaio said. “We’ll stop that car and search, so we think that may be a driver of it. But we’re asking them to look into that deeper, because if that’s the case, it should be location driven rather than specific officer driven.”
Riddick and Graham credited DeMaio with being willing to have his department examined. Similar racial disparities exist around the U.S., and it can be “nerve-wracking” to have a report published that shows that your department is stopping Black and Hispanic drivers more often, Graham said.
“There are thousands of municipalities that are not looking into this, who probably have the same levels of disparities,” Graham said. “It’s not that [Clinton Police] have disparities and no one else does, it’s that they have disparities and have the courage to look at them and try to fix them.”