Democrats, Republicans Split on Banning Low-Level Traffic Stops

State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, spoke against a proposal to ban police officers from conducting low-level traffic stops on March 6, 2024 (CT Examiner).


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HARTFORD — A proposal to ban police officers from pulling over drivers for minor traffic violations, known as “secondary stops,” is facing opposition from state Republicans, who argue the measure would hinder law enforcement from arresting people committing crimes.  

State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, a police officer, spoke at length about the bill during a news conference on Wednesday, saying it’s another law in a series of legislation designed to curb the police’s ability to carry out their duties. 

“Over the last three years, we’ve seen [the] Police Accountability [Act], the legalization of marijuana — when we told our officers they cannot stop cars when they see somebody driving down the road smoking a joint. We packed up consent searches, we’ve limited interrogation tactics, we’ve minimized the effects of juvenile crime, we’ve erased from our records on a clean slate, we undercut bond as we know it,” Howard said. 

Secondary stops involve violations such as an unlit license plate, a malfunctioning headlight, placing a license plate in the rear window instead of mounting it on the car’s rear, or overly dark window tinting.

The proposal comes the same month that Gov. Ned Lamont announced the state would be increasing traffic enforcement along areas of interstates 91 and 95. Statistics show that Connecticut recorded 367 traffic fatalities in 2022, the highest number in over three decades. Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner Ronnell Higgins said local police chiefs were also being asked to increase enforcement, particularly around drunken driving. 

Howard said there were 65 percent fewer traffic stops by state police in 2022 compared to 2019. He attributed the shortage of police officers and recruitment difficulties to “low morale,” in part caused by a feeling that the legislature wasn’t supportive enough. 

“Back on Feb. 1, Commissioner Higgins said he visited all the troops and he said morale was low. Troopers are feeling pretty beat up. And many of them are feeling unsupported,” he said. 

But State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, disagreed that the bill would make it harder for police officers to do their jobs. 

“What we’re looking at trying to do is make sure that our local law enforcement, state police are focusing on those violations that are most important. We see the amount of reckless driving. We see the speeding on our highways. We want officers focused on rooting that type of behavior out,” Stafstrom said Wednesday. “We don’t want officers focused on whether someone’s window tint is too dark, or whether someone has a headlight that might have burnt out and they’re on their way to the dealership to get it fixed.” 

Advocates of the bill, including some former police officers, said that eliminating secondary stops would free officers to pursue more serious crimes and improve community trust in officers. 

Charmin Leon, a former officer with the Cleveland Division of Police in Ohio and now with the Center for Policing Equity, a research center that collects data about racial disparities in policing, called the practice of stopping individuals for minor infractions an “ineffective, inefficient, needle-in-a-haystack approach” to dealing with crime. 

“In the time I spent on patrol and leading the background investigation and recruitment units, I found that the officers focusing on non-safety stops didn’t equate to those most effective at discovering serious crimes,” she said. “It is also demoralizing for the officers who pick up the additional calls for service while their coworkers are executing those types of stops.”

Stafstrom also disagreed with the idea that low-level stops could lead police officers to discover more serious dangers. 

“I don’t think the statistics bear that out. I think actually, frankly, most of the time, there’s a stop and a warning and they go on their way,” he said. 

But New Haven Police Chief Karl Jacobson said he’s had a different experience.

“I remember in my 26-year career working the 3 a.m. shift, the midnight shift, it felt like sometimes every other car we stopped just to tell them their headlight was out … happened to be a drunk driver. So it’s very imperative that we still have the ability to stop vehicles for this,” he said. 

He also said some of the supposedly minor offenses could cause serious problems. 

“I’ve been in a car that’s fully tinted above the legal limit, and I’ve almost crashed several times because you can’t see in the dark,” Jacobson said. 

The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, of which Jacobson is an executive board member, also said the mere sight of a police officer conducting a traffic stop naturally deters other drivers.

But others said they supported the bill because low-level stops disproportionately affect people of color. 

In written testimony, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a national nonprofit advocacy group that wants to “heal police-community relations,” pointed to a 2021 report from the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Advisory Board which found that Black drivers were twice as likely and Hispanic drivers 1.5 times more likely than white drivers to be stopped for “equipment related offenses” — things like broken lights, license plates displayed incorrectly or window tint. 

Data on traffic stops in 2023 also showed that Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be stopped for an “administrative offense” or a license plate display issue, were stopped for longer periods of time, and more likely to have their vehicles searched when compared to White drivers. 

But Howard said the state Legislature should be “changing course” on its messaging around policing.

“We’re going to ask our colleagues to start to consider some legislation that tells officers that they will be protected and supported when they go out everyday and do that difficult job and do it well. And let them know that we have their back, just like they have ours every single time that we make that phone call. They have no idea what they’re running into, but they’re there anyway,” he said. 

Stafstrom, however, said the legislature needed to exercise its responsibility to oversee police officers in the state. He noted that 10 police officers were decertified last year for either criminal conduct or inappropriate conduct on duty, and another 30 were pending decertification. 

“We are an elected legislature. We are an elected civilian body and we have to provide oversight of police officers,” he said. “What the Republicans are essentially pushing for is preventing this legislature from performing its oversight responsibility when they make arguments like we shouldn’t be debating these bills, because it decreases morale.” 

This story has been updated to reflect that Howard is currently a police officer in Stonington

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.