MONTPELIER -- Blacks are more than 4.4 times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges in the state, according to a nationwide report done by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU report found marijuana arrest rates for black people were 3.7 times greater than those for white people nationally in 2010.
The Vermont section of the ACLU report, which contained state and county data that was collected from 2001 through 2010, found that Rutland County had the highest disparity in marijuana arrests in the state, with blacks being 16.8 times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges.
The nationwide report found that when it comes to marijuana use, about 14 percent of black people and 12 percent of white people reported in 2010 that they had used the drug during the previous year. The ACLU obtained the information from the National Drug Health Survey, a Department of Health and Human Services publication. Among people ages 18 to 25, marijuana use was greater among whites.
Historically, Vermont, which had about 625,000 residents in 2010, has had one of the smallest minority populations in the country. Its overall population was nearly 96 percent white and 1 percent black in 2011, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures; the U.S. population was 78 percent white and 13 percent black.
Rutland police Chief James Baker said he was surprised by the county-wide statistics that include his city, but he didn’t dispute that bias is a problem in policing. And one of the first issues he took on when he became chief in early 2012 was to resolve a racial bias case.
He said things have changed in his time in Rutland, which in 2010 was 96 percent white and less than 1 percent black.
"Anyone who’s treated differently because of protected class, be it race, socio-economic or sexual preference, that practice by law enforcement is just not acceptable from where I sit," Baker said.
Baker’s comments were echoed by Burlington police Chief Michael Schirling.
"When we talk about trying to minimize the impact of bias in policing we start out from the premise that humans have bias in every interaction that they have with anyone," he said. "They bring biases and perceptions to the table. The important thing is to minimize or eliminate bias in the ways that laws are enforced."
In early 2012, state police released a study that found a small but statistically significant indication that racial minorities were more prone to be stopped by troopers than whites were. At that time, state police leadership committed the agency to reducing biased policing.
"I think, quite frankly, I think law enforcement has led the change on the issue of bias-free policing," Baker said.
The Vermont Human Rights Commission’s executive director, Karen Richards, said she was not surprised by the numbers.
"I think it’s symptomatic of larger social issues here in Vermont and nationwide," Richards said. "I’m not surprised that it’s happening."
The commission, which says its mission is to promote full civil and human rights in the state, has been working with police departments to combat biased policing and racial profiling.