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Report Shows Racial Disparities in Burlington-Area Policing. Now What? 

Local Matters

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Julio Perez didn’t need a 51-page report to tell him that black drivers, particularly black males such as himself, are more likely than whites to be stopped by the police in Chittenden County. Asked how many times he’s been pulled over since moving to Vermont eight years ago, the 38-year-old New York City native says, “Oh, Lord have mercy. I kiss the ground more often than the Pope.”

Perez, who now lives in Williston, was one of about 50 people who filled the O’Brien Community Center in Winooski last week to question four local police chiefs about a new report on racial disparities in traffic stops. Cosponsored by local law enforcement and the group Uncommon Alliance, the forum was convened to discuss published data from nearly 26,000 traffic stops made over a two-year period by police in Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and the University of Vermont.

The goal of the voluntary study was to determine whether police are stopping people of color at higher rates than white drivers, and, if so, whether people of color are more likely to be searched, arrested and/or issued harsher penalties.

As it turns out, the answer to all those questions is “yes.”

The data showed “statistically significant disparities” between black and white male drivers across all four departments. Black drivers in Burlington and South Burlington were twice as likely as whites to be pulled over. In South Burlington, the rate at which black drivers were searched after a traffic stop was five times higher than for white drivers.

The report also found that when police made “high-discretion stops” — meaning the officer had wide latitude as to whether to pull over the driver — the share of black motorists subjected to investigatory stops was about 85 percent higher than for whites in Burlington, and 60 percent higher at UVM, whose police have jurisdiction over the university campus and its environs.

Consistent with national trends, the researchers also discovered that the penalties resulting from those traffic stops — warnings, tickets, vehicle searches and arrests — were 9 percent heavier for black drivers in Burlington, and 14 percent heavier in South Burlington. At UVM, Latino motorists received, on average, 15 percent heavier penalties than did white drivers.

“Vermonters like to believe somehow that we are special and that this is a very progressive state,” says Stephanie Seguino, a professor of economics at UVM who compiled and crunched the police-supplied data for the report she authored. “While I buy that in a lot of respects, in a way we are also very normal with regard to race relations in America. The patterns we observe here are observed all over the country. So I hope this data analysis helps focus us.”

But helps focus us on what? As Perez asked the police chiefs during a question-and-answer period, what do they plan to do with all this data?

South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple, whose department exhibited some of the most racially disparate treatment in the study, told the diverse Winooski crowd that his department has sent recruiters to career fairs in Boston, New York and other out-of-state cities in an effort to hire more officers of color.

But as Seguino reminded Whipple, “It’s not just about putting an ad in the paper. If you are not a welcoming environment, people are not going to feel safe. If you’re an all-white department, you cannot imagine how intimidating it would be for a person of color to be one of the only people of color there.”

Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling admitted there is no “magic bullet” to fix this problem, but said it must be addressed through better hiring and retention practices and ongoing dialogue between his officers and the community. Schirling invited people of color to join the Burlington PD’s hiring panel as citizen members.

“We knew five years ago, going into this project, that disparity exists in the criminal justice system from one end to the other,” Schirling told the audience. “If we had the answer to fixing racial disparity, in this system or any other, that prize would be a Nobel Prize.”

Both Schirling and Seguino say that racial disparity in policing by itself is not evidence of racial profiling, or deliberately targeting people based on race.

“In departments our size, if someone was overtly exhibiting bias, we would know it,” says Schirling. “What we cannot control for is latent bias ... that may play a role in the decision-making process for an officer.”

In other words, latent racial bias may be more difficult to tackle than the overt variety.

“We are all a product of our socialization and, unfortunately, the media portray people of color, particularly black men, as inherently dangerous, if not criminal,” says Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission and a member of Uncommon Alliance. “Unfortunately, that plays out in tragedies such as the Trayvon Martin case. We need to dig deeply inside of ourselves and inside our institutions to change that story [and] debunk those myths.”

As the report notes, Vermont remains one of the whitest states in the country despite an influx of refugees over the past two decades, more than 98 percent of whom are resettled in Chittenden County. All four police chiefs share the goal of hiring more officers of color to better reflect the area’s changing demographics.

But Schirling points out that racial bias persists even in police departments with higher numbers of minority officers. “In some departments, you see officers of color with higher rates of disparity in all of these measures ... than white officers,” Schirling says. “In short, black and Latino cops can be equally or more guilty than white officers of racial bias, even against those who look just like them.”

The legislature is trying to tackle the problem as well. The Vermont House of Representatives passed legislation this year that would mandate and fund a study of racial disparities in Vermont’s entire criminal justice system. Now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, H.535, if passed, would also require all law enforcement agencies in Vermont to adopt a “bias-free policing policy” by January 1, 2013.

At the Vermont Police Academy, trainers are taking steps to address what they consider to be the root problem. Starting this fall, all new police recruits will be required to complete a three-hour class aimed at helping cops recognize — and overcome — their own unconscious biases about ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. By January 2013, every police field-training officer in the state will have completed the class.

T.J. Anderson, training coordinator at the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which runs the state police academy in Pittsford, attended a class in November called Fair and Impartial Policing in Rhode Island. Based on hard science about how the brain works, Anderson is now teaching the course to future Vermont law enforcers.

“A person may not be racist but have unconscious biases,” Anderson explains. “What’s important for us as police officers is that if we do not recognize our own biases, we have the possibility of being unjust, ineffective and unsafe.”

When police learn to recognize how their own brains function, Anderson explains, they can learn techniques to correct for their own latent biases. For example, they’re taught to slow down their actions in certain situations and evaluate the facts, while ignoring normal emotional responses.

In that respect, Anderson suggests that fair and impartial policing might be a more realistic goal than bias-free policing.

Curiously, the Uncommon Alliance report found that Asian drivers in Chittenden County were less likely to be stopped by police than black, white or Latino drivers. How does Seguino explain that finding?

“If you look at race relations in the United States, it’s skin color that really matters,” she says. “So, those with lighter skin color tend to be treated better than those who have darker skin color. And, for reasons that are historical, we now tend to [stereotype] Asians as the ‘model minority.’ So, there’s a perception that Asians are more submissive, more conforming, more hardworking and therefore much less likely to be engaged in illegal behavior.”

Following the community meeting, the four police chiefs stuck around to answer questions from audience members. There, Perez asked Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen what his department has done to address racial disparity in policing.

McQueen pointed out that his 16 full-time officers displayed less prejudice than of any of the agencies, according to the report.

“We talk about it constantly,” McQueen added. “We’re a small enough agency that I can go into a room and have five officers engaged in a spirited conversation on a regular basis.”

But Perez seemed unconvinced. He suggested that those conversations should be happening outside the police station. Says Perez, “Your department can change a lot of things just by shaking hands. Get out there and stop hiding behind the badge.”

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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