NORTH SMITHFIELD – For three consecutive years, a study out of Central Connecticut State University has found that the North Smithfield Police Department had a statistically significant racial and ethnic disparity when it comes to traffic stops.
Part of the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, the study uses data such as population demographics to identify concerns – such as the disproportionate rate of stops for Black and Hispanic drivers.
It’s an issue long familiar to veteran law enforcement officers including North Smithfield Police Chief Tim Lafferty and Capt. Stephen Riccitelli.
“The inception of racial profiling data started when we were patrolmen 20 years ago,” Lafferty told NRI NOW this week.
Now, the data is checked on a weekly and monthly basis with procedures that require lieutenants and captains to sign off. All patrol officers submit monthly racial profiling statistics, providing data on the race of both drivers and passengers. Captains poll the stops to make sure it represents a complete inventory. The officer supervisor and operations captain also sign off before that data is forwarded to the state.
“People are held accountable to the information,” explained Riccitelli.
The first year that CCSU’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy evaluated municipalities across Rhode Island using data from 2016, figures from North Smithfield stood out. The town showed disparities when researchers looked at things such as how many minority drivers were pulled over compared with Census-based estimates of the population.
Lafferty notes that it’s not hard to see why: 95 percent of town residents identified as white on the 2010 census used for the study. But more than 90 percent of the department’s activity is in the area of Park Square and Dowling Village, where the majority of the traffic comes from the Woonsocket area.
The population in the city is far more diverse, with 75.3 percent identifying as white on the 2010 census.
“It’s like we’re a precinct of the city of Woonsocket in this area,” Lafferty said. “Those percentages throw this off.”
In follow-ups to the study over the past three years, members of the NSPD have spoken to those gathering the data to explain why the department comes up as an outlier.
“It’s important that people don’t have a knee-jerk reaction,” Lafferty explained. “They themselves admit that there’s not enough information.”
Ken Barone, project manager for the study, noted that North Smithfield is the only agency in the state that has come up in every report.
“That does not mean we are making a statement that this department is engaging in profiling,” Barone said. “But it is significant.”
Lafferty, named to the position earlier this year following the retirement of Chief Steven Reynolds, grew up on the east side of Woonsocket. He notes that the city currently has only one small supermarket, leaving many city residents to do their shopping just outside the border in North Smithfield, at stores including Stop & Shop, Walmart, Aldi’s, Lowe’s and more. The town also includes a portion of the Route 146 corridor, plus two motels that have a transient population.
The result, he notes, is a police department that spends the vast majority of time dealing with those from out-of-town, a unique situation that throws off any attempt to draw conclusions based on demographic data.
“95 percent of those stopped in 2016 were not North Smithfield residents,” Lafferty said. “You’d be surprised at the number of people who are just transient through the town.”
The dynamic also results in a lot of activity for the small-town department. The roughly two dozen officers working for NSPD made 922 arrests last year.
“For a department our size, that’s a lot of arrests,” Lafferty said.
For his part, Barone agrees that North Smithfield’s dynamic is somewhat different than many of the other municipalities surveyed.
“They certainly have some unique factors that are contributing,” Barone said.
Still, the researcher notes that many of the factors are accounted for in the study’s initial analysis.
“When we really drill down into the data in North Smithfield, what we were finding is the nature of policing was also different in that area,” Barone said of the section of town bordering Woonsocket, noting that vehicles are often stopped for lower-level equipment or administrative offenses, such as an expired inspection or taillight out.
According to Barone, it’s that type of policing that often drives a racial disparity.
“The data tells us it’s not the most effective use of police resources,” Barone said. “We tend to police Black and Hispanic neighborhoods differently. Police tend to find what they’re looking for where they’re looking for it.”
Lafferty agrees that much of North Smithfield’s enforcement focuses on the more highly-populated area, and that traffic-related stops make up the bulk of the department’s work.
Barone contends that a strategy less focused on stops for low-level offenses targeting a specific area would bring the disparity down.
“It certainly can shrink if they change some of their enforcement practices,” he said.
According to North Smithfield officials, another factor creating the disparity is the data on vehicle searches.
North Smithfield’s policy requires officers to inventory all vehicles that are towed, including cars that break down or that must be removed from the scene of an accident. The inventory registers in the system as a “search,” creating disproportionate figure for searches of vehicles, again, with a tendency to skew data toward the demographics in the town’s busier areas.
“The majority of our searches are policy driven,” explained Riccitelli. “You really need to look at the subcategory. That’s what kicks those search numbers up.”
In 2019, for example, North Smithfield officers inventoried and towed 198 vehicles because of policy, while only eight were checked for contraband, but both activities simply registered as “searches.”
“You always get a more complete story with more information,” Lafferty said.
Riccitelli explained why it can be difficult to draw conclusions from such preliminary data, pointing out that if North Smithfield had one kidnapping in 2020, technically that would mark a 100 percent increase in domestic kidnapping as compared to 2019.
“When it comes to statistics and numbers, people really need to do a deep dive,” the captain explained.
A story in The Providence Journal from earlier this month noted that in the recently released CCSU study using data from 2018, five Rhode Island departments stood out as outliers with the most significant disparities: Warwick, Westerly, Bristol, Smithfield and North Smithfield.
The article notes that the four communities other than North Smithfield cited in the study had all come up for the first time, and that officials from the towns followed up with researchers. It does not mention North Smithfield’s attempt to follow up, and Lafferty says he was unable to get in contact with the reporter prior to publication, creating the inaccurate impression that the issue has not been addressed.
“I called Mr. Barone immediately when this report was released,” Lafferty said.
This year, Barone’s team pointed to the supplemental follow-up on data from 2016, and determined that additional analysis of the 2018 data would be repetitive. The researcher posits that the recommendation remains the same: the department would benefit from a review of its traffic enforcement policies in the Park Square area, and more specifically along the Eddie Dowling Highway, and evaluate both the location and frequency of stops that involve equipment- or inspection related motor vehicle violations.
Lafferty noted that his department is always committed to fair treatment, and improving methods of policing.
“I’m very confident in my officers. We’re always striving to improve,” the chief said. “This is where we go to more calls for service, and that has a real impact on the data.”
“We do not practice or condone racial profiling at this department,” the chief added.