PROVIDENCE — Every year from 2016 to 2019, federally funded independent studies found that police in Rhode Island stopped drivers of color at disproportionate rates compared to white drivers.
In 2020, though, the state law mandating those outside studies expired. State lawmakers have repeatedly proposed legislation to start doing them again, but couldn’t come to an agreement with police departments and civil rights groups on how.
But even after the law expired and the studies stopped, the state Department of Transportation kept applying for the federal funding to do them, and the federal government kept funding them. That’s despite the fact that the state wasn’t eligible for a large chunk of the money because of the expiration of the law. The state was still eligible for a smaller slice of funding so long as it made assurances it would work on the issue anyway — but there’s been little evidence of urgency or work around it in state government since 2020, some critics say.
That is, until Monday, when the Department of Transportation said it would start doing the work it was getting grant money for all along.
That’s good news to state lawmakers who had unsuccessfully pressed to pass legislation in previous years. They will continue to do so, even with RIDOT’s assurances.
“I will introduce the legislation on the next legislative day and look forward to full throated support from RIDOT when the hearing is held,” state Representative Edith Ajello, a Democrat of Providence, said in a written statement on Monday.
Another lawmaker was more critical of RIDOT, saying the agency had sat on the federal funds and done nothing to extend the studies they were supposed to fund until public pressure forced their hand.
“They will contort themselves to be in compliance now that the public spotlight is on them,” said state Representative Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat. “If only they had their priorities straight from the start.”
The most recent version of the federal grant to study racial disparities in traffic stops has two levels of funding available. In 2022, states that had laws mandating the collection of data on racial disparities could get up to $1.15 million. Even states without such laws can get some money — half as much — if they make assurances that they’ll “undertake activities toward collecting, maintaining, and allowing public inspection of driver race and ethnicity data for traffic stops.” The federal government calls these “assurance” states.
For 2021 and 2022, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation applied as if it were a state with a mandate, even though its law expired in January 2020. The federal government awarded it the full $1.15 million for the 2022 fiscal year. Earlier this month, apparently prompted by questions posed by the Globe, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told the state Department of Transportation that it was not actually eligible for the full amount in 2022. It would now be considered an “assurance” state, not a mandate state, NHTSA wrote to state DOT Director Peter Alviti on Feb. 21.
That meant NHTSA would de-obligate — a federal budget term meaning to cancel the commitment of — $575,000 of that $1.15 million grant for 2022.
The state Department of Transportation originally said in response to questions for this story that it applied for the federal money in preparation for a possible law that the General Assembly might pass. The General Assembly didn’t end up passing a law. The agency acknowledged it checked the wrong box on the grant applications indicating it was a mandate state, but said it was still eligible — though for a smaller amount — as an assurance state. It did not apply again for the 2023 fiscal year.
Then, on Monday, pressed by the Globe on what it had actually done as an “assurance” state to assure that data from 2021 or 2022 was actually available to the public, the gears of government started to move.
RIDOT said in a statement that the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association would provide information on the race and ethnicity of drivers in traffic stops, even without a law mandating it. The leader of the Connecticut-based team that had done Rhode Island’s studies in past years said the head of the Police Chiefs’ Association had contacted him Monday about working together again.
“RIDOT will now proceed with full compliance with the provision of both grants and we thank both NHTSA and the Police Chiefs’ Association for their support and partnership,” spokesman Charles St. Martin said.
Racial profiling in traffic stops has been a longtime concern, and Rhode Island has studied it off and on for decades. In 2015, in the most recent time policymakers launched an effort to do so before Monday’s developments, Rhode Island’s General Assembly passed the Comprehensive Community-Police Relationship Act. The law required all police departments in the state to submit data to the state Department of Transportation about the race and ethnicity of drivers its officers stopped, but only for four years. Under the 2015 law, the DOT acted as a go-between for a team of academics based in Connecticut. The Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, previously based at Central Connecticut State University and now at the University of Connecticut, was paid with the federal grant for its work.
The team repeatedly found racial and ethnic disparities in the state’s traffic stop data. The experts didn’t simply compare the percentage of people of color who were pulled over against the percentage of non-white people in a particular town. Instead it used complex statistical analyses, including one known as the “veil of darkness.” The analysts would look at slices of the day around when the clocks change for Daylight Saving Time, for example. If the rate of people of color being pulled over at 7 a.m. suddenly jumps when the clocks change and it’s abruptly light out at 7 a.m., that could be an indication of racial bias in police stops. It’s not like the driving population would have suddenly changed — instead, what suddenly changed is a police officer’s ability to see the race of the driver.
The logic and the math is not always straightforward. What was straightforward was the result every year: cities and towns in Rhode Island were pulling over people of color at disproportionate rates. The studies identified particular police departments that deserved further scrutiny; those departments would generally respond by saying that they do not racially profile drivers, and that the studies failed to take the particular driving population of their towns into account. As for the “veil of darkness” test, the gold standard, according to the Connecticut team, police in Rhode Island rejected the notion that they could tell the race and ethnicity of a driver speeding on a highway.
Although police departments no longer had to send the data on the race and ethnicity of the drivers in traffic stops to the state after January 2020, they continued to collect it and study it in internally, according to Sid Wordell, the executive director of the Police Chiefs’ Association. They’ll now be able to send it to the state for an independent study again.
Ken Barone, who leads the Connecticut-based team that analyzed Rhode Island’s data in the past, said Wordell contacted him Monday about the possibility of working together again. Barone said he was open to it, but would want to ensure that the team had control over the product. Barone suggested a three-year study starting with 2020 and 2022, and a public dashboard similar to what they’ve developed in Connecticut — where, after years, progress has finally started to be made, Barone has said.
Some questions remain, including: How will the data be analyzed? One of the reasons it got stuck in the General Assembly was over concerns from police.
But civil rights groups also had concerns about the studies Barone’s team did, saying they excused or didn’t look deeply enough at disparities. (Barone said his team’s analysis is rigorous and statistically sound.)
“It’s good news that the traffic stop data that has been collected these past few years will not go to waste,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “However, it still remains crucial for the General Assembly to pass the legislation on this subject that has stalled these past few years. Without revisions to the law as to how the data will be analyzed, we fear the study will fail to provide the public and law enforcement all the information necessary to fully comprehend the extent of the problem of racial disparities in traffic stops and searches.”
State Senator Ana Quezada, a Democrat of Providence, said people in her community have no doubt that racial profiling exists.
“I really believe we want to see the numbers to verify if it’s true or not,” she said. “I don’t understand why it’s so hard to provide that information.”