State Sen. Herron Gaston (opinion): Police must treat people they pull over with respect

Newly elected state Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, attends the opening legislative session at the Capitol in Hartford, Conn. on Wednesday, Jan. 4.

Newly elected state Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, attends the opening legislative session at the Capitol in Hartford, Conn. on Wednesday, Jan. 4.

Brian A. Pounds, Staff Photographer / Hearst Connecticut Media

I often think about what would happen to me if I get pulled over. I have this fear because I am Black that a simple interaction with an officer can take a deadly turn quickly. And I have been pulled over. A police officer has pulled me over and not acknowledged the reason for doing so. I asked “why” and he asked for my license. It’s not until I told the officer who I was and that I worked for the city of Bridgeport that his attitude changed.

These potentially tense interactions should not transpire this way. One should not have to explain to an officer who you are and if you hold a certain status in order to simply find out why you were stopped. This needs to change. As a senator, I am committed to holding our police officers accountable and identifying ways to improve the way police interact with the communities they serve.

This legislative session, I have proposed a bill requiring police officers in Connecticut to tell motorists why they are being pulled over. Currently in our state, an officer does not have to tell you why you are being pulled over, and they can ask you for your ID during a traffic stop. Too many officers take advantage of this, and it is unacceptable for drivers to be pulled over just because they are Black. Research shows police officers stop Black drivers more often than white drivers. Why?

According to the Open Policing Project, on a typical day in the U.S., police officers conduct more then 50,000 traffic stops, with officers generally stopping Black drivers at a higher rate than white drivers. A study done in 2020 shows Black drivers were 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, and Black drivers were searched about 1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers.

In September 2022, we celebrated the 10-year-anniversary in September of the Alvin W. Penn Act, named after the late state Sen. Alvin W. Penn. This is Connecticut’s anti-racial profiling law that prohibits any law enforcement agency from stopping, detaining or searching any motorist when the stop is motivated solely by considerations of the race, color, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation of that individual. Alvin Penn was a hero who fought for our rights. I want to continue to fight for drivers behind the wheel.

Tyre Nichols’ name will not be forgotten. Under no circumstance can we have that situation happen ever again. We need to hold officers accountable. They need to be transparent when pulling over a driver, no matter the reason. Miscommunication can lead to conflict. Respect deescalates tension.

Now I know there are times when a person has broken a law and they deserve to be pulled over, rightfully so, but they also deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. There needs to be a trust that is created between motorists and law enforcement. It is critically important for our law enforcement to exemplify basic courtesy during any traffic stop. Everyone deserves compassion and to be treated with dignity when they are pulled over.

State Sen. Herron Gaston represents the 23rd District, which includes parts of Bridgeport and Stratford.