One City’s Reform Plan Reduced Race-Based Police Stops

Above Photo: Nick Ut / AP

The Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice and the Blue Lives Matter movement in support of police officers have put a spotlight on tensions regarding American police forces’ treatment of minorities. These tensions have been persistent and widespread, but improvements are possible and small changes can make a positive difference, judging by one Connecticut community that might be viewed as a test case for how to resolve some of the conflict.

After the Hamden, Conn., Police Department was singled out in a 2015 state-sponsored study for conducting disproportionate stops of African-American motorists, Chief Thomas Wydra acted to improve relations between police officers and the minorities his department serves. A year into his reform efforts, stops of African-American drivers have been reduced heavily, helping to close the racial gap in traffic stops in the area.

Even before the reforms were enacted, the police chief had qualms about defective-equipment laws, which allow officers to stop motorists for minor violations ranging from dangling ornamentation on rear-view mirrors to having too heavy a tint on car windows. Under the vague guidelines, officers often use their own discretion during traffic stops.

It turned out that Wydra’s concerns were valid. The state-conducted analysis of traffic stops in Connecticut suggested that the discretion police officers exercise in these situations is far from infallible. The study found that Hamden’s department stopped minority drivers at disproportionately higher rates than for whites. Although black drivers were twice as likely as whites to be searched during routine stops, searches of black drivers resulted in a lower rate of contraband discovery than for whites, 29 percent versus 39 percent.

In response to the troubling findings, Wydra took action, says NPR:

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.”

Defective-equipment stops have declined by more than half, from 19 percent to 8 percent of all motor vehicle stops. The number of black drivers pulled over has fallen by 25 percent.

Here’s one takeaway from the changes in Hamden: Understanding and acknowledging racial inequality, as well as biases—conscious or unconscious—can result in the implementation of more equitable policies, thus providing institutional confirmation that black lives matter while upholding the integrity of the officers in blue.