PROVIDENCE — For the fourth year running, a state-commissioned study found that police throughout Rhode Island pulled over non-white drivers at disproportionate rates in 2019, a trend that was especially pronounced in eight local departments.
But the study, by experts at Central Connecticut State University, will be the last of its kind unless the state legislature acts. That’s because the 2015 law that made the studies possible has expired. Continuing to look at the traffic-stop data “is imperative,” said Ken Barone, the study’s project manager.
“We’re living in a time when transparency and accountability is at the forefront of conversations we’re having around policing,” said Barone, whose team was hired by Rhode Island to look at the data.
The writers of the 277-page report are careful to couch their analysis: Even as it shows people of color being pulled over at disproportionate rates across the state in 2019, the authors warn that it’s not conclusive proof of racial profiling — the use of race as a reason to suspect them of a crime or pull them over.
Still, a troubling picture emerges, just as it did in 2016, 2017 and 2018. For example, some departments are more likely to find contraband after searching white drivers than they are after searching Black or Hispanic drivers, which suggests they’re subjecting Black and Hispanic drivers to more searches, the authors say.
Some departments are also more likely to pull over Black or Hispanic drivers when it’s light out than they are when it’s dark out. Researchers say police officers are more likely to be able to identify the race or ethnicity of the driver during the day, which could be an indication of disparate treatment. That holds true even when researchers take into account shifting driving populations over the course of a day.
And statewide, nearly 13 percent of the traffic stops in Rhode Island were of Black drivers in 2019, who make up about 8 percent of the statewide population, according to U.S. Census data.
At the departmental level, it can be tricky to simply compare the number of traffic stops to population numbers in town, Barone said. But “at the statewide level, it’s something worth looking at,” Barone said.
The eight departments with the most significant disparities were: East Providence, North Providence, South Kingstown, Portsmouth, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Warwick and Westerly.
Smithfield, Warwick, Westerly and North Smithfield had been identified in previous annual reports, and North Smithfield has been singled out in every single one.
The effort to carry on with these particular studies comes up against opposition from a surprising source: civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights and Rhode Island for Community and Justice.
Those groups say the reports from Barone’s team don’t go nearly far enough, finding every excuse in the book to wave away patent disparities. They say the annual studies have done more harm than good. Rhode Island should continue studying the data, they say, but the law needs to be significantly strengthened.
Even after decades of studies of the issue, “racial disparities in stops and searches persist,” Michael Évora, the executive director of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, said last year.
Barone, for his part, said the issue lies not with his organization’s analysis of the data, but with the law that allowed that analysis to happen. The law had shortcomings, Barone said.
One of them is that it didn’t let them analyze particular officers, just departments. And unlike in Connecticut, where his team has been working for about a decade, there hasn’t been nearly as much buy-in from the broader community in Rhode Island, Barone said. In Rhode Island, every year, the reports are uploaded to a Department of Transportation website without fanfare. The data for 2019 was uploaded this week.
“In this critical national moment of reform in the criminal justice system, we need more transparency and accountability not less,” Barone wrote to the civil rights groups and state lawmakers in a letter Thursday.
Right now, though, Rhode Island is getting less: The law has expired, so now nobody outside of police departments is in charge of collecting the data. Lawmakers are now trying to renew the studies, while also strengthening the law around it.
A proposed law, which had hearings in the General Assembly earlier this month, would order more traffic-stop studies in Rhode Island. It would also create a statewide board to review the findings. And it would result in departments losing their accreditation if they are identified as having major disparities in traffic stops.
“It would really start centering the lives of mostly Black and brown people who are racially profiled,” state Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, one of the sponsors of the bill in the House, said in an interview. “And see them as human beings who are simply trying to get to their job or their doctor or just trying to exist without being harassed and profiled.”
Ranglin-Vassell, a Democrat of Providence, said she had “no doubt” that police in Rhode Island racially profile drivers. She recalls driving down to the University of Rhode Island with her husband for their son’s graduation a few years ago. They were in a line of cars, but they, the Black couple, were the ones pulled over.
“All I kept thinking of is, why were they just picking us out?” Ranglin-Vassell said.
State Senator Ana Quezada, who is sponsoring the bill on the Senate side, said she’s heard stories from people in her community, usually from young Latino men, about being pulled over for no reason. Often they’re driving in towns other than Providence.
“It makes you feel you don’t belong here,” Quezada said.
Quezada stressed that she thinks the police, by and large, do a good job in Providence, whose department has become more diverse over the years. She’s not against any police department, she said.
“I’m very grateful for them,” she said. “At the same time, we just want to treat everyone fairly.”
Sid Wordell, who is the executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association, said his organization does not oppose continuing these studies. In fact, even though departments no longer have to collect the underlying data with the expiration of the 2015 law, every one of them has continued to do so voluntarily, he said.
Wordell said he did not believe police in Rhode Island purposefully target people of color for traffic stops.
But it’s possible that departmental policies are unintentionally subjecting people of color to more stops — like directing patrols to certain areas of town where more people of color are driving, he said. Identifying those issues makes these sorts of studies worthwhile, Wordell said.
Still, he spoke out in opposition to some parts of the proposed expansion of the law, including the ban on departments seeking accreditation if they are identified as having significant disparities. Accreditation means oversight, Wordell said, so taking that away is like “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
“You take an agency you think is doing something wrong and now nobody is going to be looking at them?” Wordell said.
Ask the police chiefs in the towns singled out for further study and the answers are consistent: The data is concerning and they’re looking into why it’s happening, but their officers absolutely do not engage in racial profiling.
Often, departments will identify areas of town where they have to focus more attention because that’s where the traffic is.
Chief Tim Lafferty of the North Smithfield Police Department — whose agency has been identified as an outlier in all four years — said he believed the town has disparities in its traffic stops because it does 90 percent of its traffic enforcement in an area of town where the driving population is more diverse than the town’s resident population.
The Dowling Village shopping area of North Smithfield tends to draw shoppers from Woonsocket, which is much more diverse than North Smithfield, Lafferty said. That’s the area where North Smithfield focuses its traffic enforcement, because that’s where the traffic is, Lafferty said. In other areas of town, they won’t see many cars at all, much less violations or crashes, according to Lafferty.
The department, he said, does not racially profile anyone. But he’s concerned about the department’s presence in these reports year after year, and has requested money for equipment that might help understand traffic patterns better in town.
“It’s a complicated issue, but we in no way, shape or form racially profile or have bias against anyone,” Lafferty said. “We treat everyone equally.”
But to Steven Brown, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, decades of data shows something much different and much more concerning. Even before Barone’s team came in, other experts have found problems in Rhode Island going back 20 years.
“Every one of those studies, the results have been the same,” Brown said. “People of color are more often stopped, people of color are more often searched, and white people are more often to be found with contraband,” Brown said. “That has to say something. And that has to mean something.”