Do the Vermont State Police treat black and brown drivers the same as white ones?
That was the takeaway by the state cops — and most Vermont news outlets — last week after release of an in-depth study of whether troopers engage in racial profiling during traffic stops.
The state police hired Jack McDevitt from the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University to analyze data collected by state troopers from some 50,000 traffic stops between July 2010 and June 2011. The purpose was to identify any racial or ethnic disparities in enforcement — presumably so the police could fix whatever problems surfaced.
Minorities are just 5 percent of Vermont’s population, making the state the second whitest in the U.S. after Maine. Not surprisingly, more Caucasians than nonwhites get pulled over, 95.6 percent of the total compared to 4.4 percent.
McDevitt’s analysis pinpointed “a few areas where racial and ethnic disparities exist,” namely that minorities were searched “slightly more than whites” relative to their population and that such searches were actually less likely to turn up contraband for nonwhites than for white drivers. Plus, minorities were notably more likely to be ticketed than whites for traffic violations.
“However, the data do not suggest that this is related to any systemic bias by VSP officers,” McDevitt concluded. “Overall, the analysis suggests that the VSP are professional in their enforcement practices.”
The official state police press release — headlined “Bias Not Indicated by VSP Enforcement” — noted, “State police members stop very few drivers of color (4.4 percent) when compared to a state population, which is 5.7 percent nonwhite.” Also, the state cops conducted “relatively few” vehicle searches overall (1 percent of stops), the statement said, and when they did, contraband was found 73 percent of the time. In other words, cops aren’t needlessly searching people.
It’s a pretty rosy picture. But don’t make “postracial” the state motto just yet.
Drill down into the numbers — as University of Vermont professor Stephanie Seguino did — and Vermont looks a whole lot less exceptional.
For instance, the stop rate for blacks was almost double their population percentage. The rates for Asians and Hispanics were less. In other words, when you lump minority groups together, as the state-police report did, the overall disparity rate looks a lot less alarming. When you pull the data apart, it looks like blacks are being targeted.
Granted, cops usually can’t determine the race of a driver who whizzes past at 80 miles per hour. But they can once they stop the car. And that’s where Seguino says the numbers take a more troubling turn.
Once stopped, minority motorists were searched two and a half times more often than white drivers, Seguino says. And only a third of those searches turned up something illegal. “The percentage of white stops in which no contraband was found was .24% of all cases, compared to 1.68% of minorities.” Seguino reports. “In other words, minorities were seven times more likely to be searched needlessly.”
The likelihood of a minority driver getting a ticket instead of a warning? Two and a half times more than white drivers.
Statistically, Seguino says, all that puts Vermont on par with states such as Florida and — gasp! — New Jersey when it comes to traffic-stop treatment.
“They are over-searching people of color,” Seguino says of the state police, while crediting the agency with voluntarily conducting the race-bias survey. “The news reports indicated that search rates don’t indicate racial disparities. But my reading of this data is that this underscores significant racial disparities.”
The report’s justification for lumping minority groups together for analysis was the relatively small sample size: 1761 minority stops. That’s a small chunk of the 50,000 total, but Seguino says it’s plenty big to glean meaningful trends. She notes that it’s far larger than the numbers she collects and analyzes for Uncommon Alliance, a project that looks for racial disparities in data from police in Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski and at UVM.
“It would appear problems are being underplayed,” Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, says of the report. “We have a long history of racial bias and prejudice in this country, and Vermont is no better than the rest of the country. We need to face facts.”
Appel believes any racial disparity identified can be explained by “implicit bias” of state troopers rather than outright racism. But, he says, “recognizing the problem” — in this case, getting a firm grasp on everything the traffic data can tell us — is the first step toward addressing it. To that end, Appel emailed state police Col. Tom L’Esperance requesting the raw traffic-stop data for a deeper analysis, but he was rebuffed. In an email obtained by Fair Game, L’Esperance told Appel: “I think we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit.”
State police Maj. Bill Sheets clarifies that the state police don’t yet have the raw data; they’re still with the Northeastern University researchers. State police are already six months into collecting traffic-stop data for year two of the research, and Sheets says the second year will examine stops, searches and citations by race.
“We’ll be looking for someone locally” to do that analysis, Sheets says, adding, “and I hope it’s Stephanie.”
Is Sheets worried about the gaping racial disparities identified by Seguino? If so, he’s not letting on.
“I think it’s an opportunity to take a look,” he says. “I don’t want us to lose sight. Remember, most organizations nationally in law enforcement, the percentages of times they actually search a vehicle are far higher. We search 1 percent of all vehicles stopped. In that rate — and I’m taking race out of the equation — we have a success rate of finding contraband 73 percent of the time. That’s far and away a national model.”
But race is part of the equation, remember? That’s why we’re having this conversation.
The state police aren’t the only ones facing racial-profiling problems. On Monday, the City of Rutland agreed to pay $30,300 to an African American man from New York to settle allegations that he was unlawfully detained and strip searched by city cops after arriving at the Rutland Amtrak station last March.
Mark Allen, a 41-year-old cable-system installer from Brooklyn, filed a “charge of discrimination” with the Vermont Human Rights Commission following the March 14, 2011, incident, claiming the cops violated Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act.
Allen apparently came to Rutland for a love connection and hitched a ride from the train station with the gal’s friend. Cops stopped the car he was riding in for a nonworking brake light and discovered that the Southern Vermont Drug Task Force wanted the car for suspected drug trafficking.
According to a settlement agreement signed by Rutland city attorney Andrew Costello, police searched Allen and his luggage on-site — but no contraband was found. Allen consented to a strip search back at the station — again, nothing illegal turned up. The white driver and a second white passenger, meanwhile, were let go without being strip searched or charged.
Allen believed that he “would not have been subjected to this degree of scrutiny and humiliation had he not been an African American male.” Rutland officials denied that race had anything to do with it, but nonetheless entered into a settlement to avoid threatened “litigation.”
If approved by city aldermen (a vote was set for Tuesday evening, after Seven Days’ deadline), the agreement will require Rutland to adopt a bias-free policing policy within 60 days and hire someone to teach it to every department employee by next year.
Allen’s lawyer, David Sleigh of St. Johnsbury, quips, “It’s tough to find romance under these conditions.”
Burlington’s mayoral candidates talk a lot about creating new jobs. Two of them aren’t waiting for the election.
Miro Weinberger has hired three full-time campaign staffers and one part-time one in his quest to become Burlington’s first Democratic mayor in more than 30 years. Campaign coordinator Jessica Nordhaus, field director Jaafar Rizvi and campaign spokesman Mike Kanarick each earn $625 a week, according to Kanarick. Deb Lichtenfeld is paid $300 weekly to work half time, organizing house parties and fundraisers and handling campaign logistics.
“As a small-business owner, Miro knows how important it is to hire a top-notch team, and that’s what he’s done in this campaign,” Kanarick says.
Weinberger’s Republican opponent, city councilor and state lawmaker Kurt Wright, has just one full-time staffer and last week put three part-time office workers on the payroll. Tayt Brooks, the former executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, earns $200 a week, according to campaign reports. Angela Chagnon and Linda Chagnon each got $150 on February 14, and Clarke Reiner was paid $125.
Wright campaign spokesman Dave Hartnett, who works for free, says the campaign was trying to use all volunteers, but as the March 6 election got closer, he says, “We realized we needed extra help.”
Independent Wanda Hines has no paid staff. Reacting to Weinberger’s campaign payroll figures, Hines said, “Woooo! Must be nice, huh? Good for him if that’s what it takes. Our needs are different in this campaign. Mine are minimal.”
Weinberger is also benefiting from the state Democratic Party, which is lending him and other local Ds use of its Battery Street office and assistance from the state party’s communications and field staffers, according to Jesse Bragg, party executive director.
If Weinberger can create private-sector positions like he does campaign jobs, Burlington’s economy might actually have the “fresh start” he’s promising. If he wins.