By DANIEL KITTREDGE An illegal quota system that exacerbates racial disparities, or an essential tool for enhancing roadway safety and reducing fatalities? The ACLU's Rhode Island chapter and Cranston Police painted sharply different portraits Monday of
An illegal quota system that exacerbates racial disparities, or an essential tool for enhancing roadway safety and reducing fatalities?
The ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter and Cranston Police painted sharply different portraits Monday of a department policy that requires patrol officers to initiate a minimum of two traffic stops for each eight-hour shift they work.
In a letter, Steven Brown, executive director of the local ACLU, called on Mayor Ken Hopkins and the members of the City Council to “take immediate action to halt what appears to be a long-standing and flagrant violation of the law by the Cranston Police Department.”
“This transgression, which the ACLU contacted the Police Chief about six months ago but has yielded no reply, is not only deeply problematic in and of itself, it also leaves us with little doubt that it has contributed to a serious racial profiling problem in the City,” Brown’s letter continues.
In response, Chief of Police Col. Michael Winquist and Maj. Todd Patalano issued a statement blasting the ACLU’s letter as “misleading” and “replete with inaccuracies and falsehoods.”
Acknowledging the policy in question as a “long-standing directive” for Cranston officers, the statement adds: “When traffic enforcement was relaxed during the pandemic, traffic fatalities spiked despite fewer vehicles on the roadway. One of the most prevalent quality of life complaints we receive from the public and city elected officials is speeding and stop sign violations. Based on these complaints, we dedicate resources to address these concerns, which result in officers stopping a high volume of vehicles.”
According to an ACLU press release and several attached documents, Brown twice wrote to Winquist – first in February, then in May – after his organization received copies of internal Cranston Police emails from 2017 and 2020 regarding the traffic stop policy.
The internal emails are included in the ACLU’s materials. The 2017 message, issued by Maj. Robert Quirk to the department’s patrol supervisors at the time, asks that they ensure patrol officers “are conducting a minimum of two traffic stops during the course of their shift.” The 2020 message, written by Capt. Gerard Carnevale, advises all officers of the two-stop policy being reinstated after a pause during the pandemic.
According to Brown’s letter from Monday, Winquist never responded to the February and May correspondence raising concerns over the two-stop policy.
Brown asserts in his letter to city officials that the Cranston department’s policy violates a 2010 state law that “unambiguously banned traffic stop quotas.”
“To see a police department brazenly violate the law in this manner is unconscionable,” Brown writes.
He later adds: “Every day, virtually every one of us breaks a traffic law whether it is going five miles over the speed limit, failing to put on a turn signal, or accidentally crossing the center lane for a moment. When police are put in the position of choosing which cars to pull over merely for the sake of meeting an arbitrary quota, rather than for a legitimate public safety need, it can only encourage discriminatory treatment of motorists.”
In their statement, Winquist and Patalano reject Brown’s interpretation of the statute as it relates to the Cranston department’s policy.
“Traffic enforcement is the responsibility and duty of every police officer around the country. It has been made clear to all of our officers and is codified in policy that enforcement is to be done impartially and for observable violations of Rhode Island traffic laws,” their statement reads. “These stops are not ‘investigative stops.’ An investigative stop is based on reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. Officers focus on flagrant traffic violations that pose a serious risk to the motoring public. Officers have complete discretion on the decision to issue a traffic citation or a warning. There is no expectation or requirement that an Officer must issue two traffic tickets during their shift, which would violate the Rhode Island General law regarding the prohibition of ticket quotas … Most often, traffic stops end with a warning and an educational interaction with the public.”
The statute in question, Rhode Island General Law Chapter 31-27-25, states: “No state or municipal agency engaged in the enforcement of any motor vehicle traffic or parking laws of this state, or any local ordinance governing motor vehicle traffic or parking, may establish or maintain any policy, formally or informally, requiring any office to meet a quota.”
The passage defines “quota” as “any requirement regarding the number of arrests or investigative stops made, or summonses or citations issued, by an officer regarding motor vehicle traffic or parking violations.”
It adds: “Nothing contained herein shall preclude a local or municipal agency from using data concerning arrests or investigative stops made, or summonses or citations issued, and their disposition in the evaluation of an officer’s work performance, provided such data is not the exclusive means of evaluating such performance.”
Winquist and Patalano also make the case that their department’s policy represents a vital safety measure – one supported by residents and elected officials.
“As of this morning, there have been thirty-seven traffic fatalities on Rhode Island roadways,” the statement reads. “The number of deaths is above average at this point in the year and represents a dangerous trend that continues to increase … Unfortunately, Mr. Brown feels some traffic laws should be discarded, such as ‘crossing the centerline for a moment,’ which could be indicative of an impaired operator. The Cranston Police Department will continue to perform our lawful duty and responsibility to keep the roadways safe for children, families, pedestrians, and the general motoring public.”
Brown raises other concerns, as well.
“Worse” than the potential conflict with state law, he writes, is that the two-stop policy “undoubtedly helps explain the Cranston Police Department’s consistently disturbing racial disparities in stopping and searching cars, as documented by annual analyses of traffic stop data performed pursuant to state law by Central Connecticut State University.”
Brown is referring to an annual report prepared by that university’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy. The state law mandating the report has since expired.
The most recent report, covering 2018, found Rhode Island police departments stopped Black and Hispanic drivers at much higher rates than other motorists. Cranston’s department was cited in the report covering 2015 as having statistical disparities in terms of its traffic stops that warranted further analysis.
Brown’s letter continues: “In addition, the anxiety and trauma that can be generated by a police stop goes without saying. For most people, it is an unnerving experience, but for people of color, it is particularly fraught.”
In their statement, Winquist and Patalano again reject Brown’s assertions.
The ACLU director, they write, “attempts somehow to correlate our commitment to traffic enforcement to racial profiling.”
“It is made clear in all of the reports authored by Central Connecticut State University that racial disparities identified through statistical analysis ‘cannot without further investigation provide sufficient evidence that racial profiling exists,’” the continue. “Our department voluntarily met with researchers from Central Connecticut State University and provided data beyond what is required under the law. This further study identified additional variables or factors that may have contributed to the discrepancies. Despite the Comprehensive Community-Police Relationship Act law sunsetting, our department collects and monitors traffic stop internally and searches data to ensure all officers are conducting traffic stops impartially to race and all searches are being conducted lawfully.”
Brown’s letter asks Hopkins and City Council members to “order an immediate halt to this practice, investigate its origins and the reasons it has continued for so long in violation of the law, and take all other necessary and appropriate steps to ensure that those responsible for this law-breaking are held accountable. This investigation should proceed even if the Department indicates it plans to halt, or has halted, this long-standing practice.”
He adds: “Particularly at a time when there is widespread public agreement about the need for greater police accountability, the department’s actions can only promote disrespect for, and cynicism about, law enforcement practices.”
The ACLU of Rhode Island has also asked community members who feel they have been stopped unnecessarily or been the subject of racial profiling to contact the organization.
In an email Tuesday, Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP Providence Branch and a Cranston resident, wrote that he is “extremely concerned about the recent news about the Cranston Police Department’s admission that they have a quota system regarding traffic stops.”
“Either the department is violating state law with these traffic stops or they are stopping motorists for no reason,” he continued. “Either way, this is not the way to build community trust. This admitted quota system should be ended immediately!”
Reached Tuesday, Hopkins provided the following statement: “I have review this matter with Col. Winquist and our city solicitor. I continue to stand by Col. Winquist for his leadership and judgment … I give the colonel full support.”
The two-stop policy dispute marks the latest episode in an often contentious relationship between the ACLU and the city of Cranston. Matters of dispute over the years have included the Cranston High School West prayer banner, the counting of ACI prisoners in the city’s population for the drawing of ward maps and, most recently, the city’s ordinances regarding roadside solicitation, or panhandling. Earlier this year, the Hopkins administration settled a long-running suit over the latest iteration of the panhandling ordinance, agreeing to pay $140,000 to cover the ACLU’s legal fees and other costs.