Bill would ban low-level traffic stops, but police raise safety concerns

Some Connecticut lawmakers hope to reduce deadly police encounters by banning low-level traffic stops. But police and Republican lawmakers are raising safety concerns.

Across the nation, dozens of minor traffic stops have turned fatal – and made national headlines. Here in Connecticut, Wethersfield police shot and killed an 18-year-old driver in 2019 who fled a traffic stop for “heavily tinted windows.” Prosecutors later ruled the shooting justified.
On Tuesday, the legislature’s Judiciary Committee considered a bill prohibiting stops for purely “secondary violations” such as tinted windows, a partly obstructed windshield and license plate, or for one broken headlight. Other secondary violations would include a recently expired registration or driver’s license.

Critics worry the bill goes too far.

“I was coming home from Hartford the other night, and I came upon a car that had no taillights at all,” said state Rep. Pat Callahan (R-New Fairfield). “So, isn’t this a safety issue?”

“Out of 298,000 traffic crashes over the last three years, a light was a contributing factor – not the lead factor, but a contributing factor – in 0.05% of all traffic crashes,” said Ken Barone, a task force member who also manages UConn’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy and the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project. “Black and Hispanic drivers are almost twice as likely to be stopped for low-level equipment and administrative offenses as white drivers.”

But police said the risks go beyond traffic safety. They argued that more stops lead to suspects in other crimes.

“Gun seizures increased by more than 65%, gun crimes declined in the target area by 49%. Drive-by shootings went from seven to one in the target area,” said GOP state Rep. Greg Howard, who’s also a Stonington police detective.

But other law enforcement pushed back on that idea.

“If the problem in your area is, let’s say, violent crime – what does conducting low-level traffic stops do for violent crime?” asked former Salt Lake City police chief Chris Burbank, who’s now vice president of the Center for Policing Equity.

Most other states already have “secondary” traffic violations, but what offenses qualify varies from place to place.

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