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As efforts to address the racial disparity in traffic stops in Vermont continue, Bennington and Manchester have been highlighted in a report showing Black drivers are stopped at a higher rate than white drivers in Vermont based on their estimated driving populations.

The report, issued Tuesday by researchers at the University of Vermont and Cornell University, says Black and Hispanic drivers in Vermont are ticketed, arrested and searched at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

The study, entitled “Trends in Racial Disparities in Vermont Traffic Stops, 2014-19” is based on more than 800,000 traffic stops in Vermont conducted by 79 Vermont law enforcement agencies, researchers said.

“We find evidence of racial disparities using a variety of indicators. Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped at a rate that exceeds their share of the estimated driving population,” the report said.

According to researchers, their calculations of stop rates per 1,000 residents by race show a stop rate of 256 per 1,000 for white drivers, compared to Black stop rate of 459 per 1,000 Black residents. “The stop rates in Vermont for all racial groups are much higher than the national average of 86 per 1,000 residents,” the report said.

According to the report, 2.5 percent of Black motorists and 2.1 percent of Hispanic drivers who had been stopped in Manchester were searched, compared to 0.5 percent of stopped white motorists; and in Bennington, 4.6 percent of stopped Black motorists and 1.9 percent of Hispanic motorists were searched, compared to 1.2 percent of stopped white motorists.

POLICIES UNDER SCRUTINY

In Bennington, there has been an ongoing examination this year of all police department procedures and policies, including traffic stop policies.

The Select Board has organized the creation of citizen volunteer-led task force groups that are examining current department policies and recommending revisions or updates. In addition to traffic stop policy, the groups are reviewing current policies and model formats for use of force, impartial policing, investigation of hate crimes, responding to a person experiencing a mental health crisis and at least six other BPD policies by spring.

Once drafted, the revised policies are coming before the Select Board for public hearings and eventual adoption by the board. They are then posted on the town’s website, which also now features a community policing resources page.

An examination of policies was one of the recommendations in a report from a team with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was hired by board in 2019 to review BPD policies and procedures. The review was in response to criticism earlier in the year about the department’s response to racial harassment complaints over a two-year period from former state Rep. Kiah Morris, who stepped down from her House seat in September 2018.

The police department also was criticized by the ACLU and NAACP of Vermont after a Black man, Shamel Alexander, was stopped on Main Street in 2013 and arrested on drug trafficking charges and later convicted. Heroin evidence seized from him in a search was subsequently tossed out by the Vermont Supreme Court, which determined the stop was improperly extended in violation of Alexander’s civil rights. The charges were then dropped and the conviction vacated.

The town in June 2020 settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by Alexander in U.S. District Court, paying him $30,000 as part of the settlement.

OFFICIALS REACT

In reaction to the traffic stop report released this year, Town Manager Stuart Hurd referred, as he has previously, to an analysis by the Crime Research Group Inc. that found the first UVM study was flawed.

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“Unfortunately the updated study may not have changed its analytics, continues to use census data that does not take into account people traveling in and out of Vermont on a regular basis, and continues to disregard the fact that many departments were incorrectly filling in the information requested on the ticket (no training had been provided by the state when the tickets changed),” Hurd said in an email. “For Bennington, the 2020 data should be more accurate because we sought and received the training.”

Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said of the new report, “If you have a credible study that shows there is bias in traffic stops and an equally credible study that shows there is not, you can either be paralyzed by competing data or move forward in the least harmful way. Whether or not there is statistical bias in traffic stops, it is better to examine and improve the phenomenon than to ignore it. This is a societal issue that all municipalities should be taking extremely seriously — ours certainly is.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins said, “The report provides baseline information that we are paying attention to. Certainly, the data helped inform the Policy Advisory Committee’s thinking on the BPD’s traffic stop policy that will be coming before the Select Board in the next few weeks. Our police department has now been trained on the new ticket information required, and so we are confident that future traffic stop data will be more complete and so more useful.”

Another board member, Bruce Lee-Clark, who has been involved in the police policy task force discussions, said, “I can say for myself (and not the Select Board) that it does not surprise me that the members of the BPD are representative of our society with all of its racial stereotypes. But, because we expect more from our police than we do from the everyday citizen, because of the power that we give them, we need to do all that we can to ensure fair and impartial policing. We are not there yet.”

He added, “We need to continue to change the culture of our community, so that people of all racial backgrounds feel welcome and are encouraged to live and prosper here. We are not there yet. We have to be inclusive at all levels of power and while we are striving to do that, we are not there yet. This traffic stop data is not perfect, but it shows us that we are not where we want to be, not where I want us to be. The data will not be ignored, if I have anything to say about it. I encourage all to examine the data and the report and join in the change that is taking place.”

STATE POLICE

For the Vermont State Police barracks in Rockingham, the percentage of stops including searches was 6.4 percent for Black motorists and 6.8 percent for Hispanic drivers, compared to 1.5 percent of white drivers and 1.1 percent of Asian drivers. At the Shaftsbury barracks, the search percentages were 3.2 percent of Black drivers and 2.1 percent of Hispanic drivers, compared to 0.9 percent of white drivers.

Researchers said the data available for analysis is “limited,” noting that Vermont driver’s licenses do not include race/ethnicity of the driver, and that the race of the driver indicated in officer reports “is based on officer perception.”

The study said trends do not show diminishing racial disparities in traffic stops, even with the legalization of cannabis. “Since the start of data collection in 2014, the number of traffic stops has increased for all racial groups, but more for Black drivers than white drivers,” the report said.

“Search rates have declined for all racial groups since the legalization of cannabis, but the Black search continues to be three times greater than the white search rate, while the Hispanic-white search rate disparity has widened since legalization,” the report said.

As to police compliance with the state’s data collection mandates, while compliance has improved since 2014, “there is still a troubling amount of missing and incomplete data,” the report said. “We find that the legislation has not been sufficiently precise or comprehensive in delineating the data to be collected. Police chiefs have interpreted the meaning of various components of the legislation differently, and thus do not follow a uniform method of reporting data. Some categories of data that would be useful—and are already collected — were not stipulated in the legislation. Law enforcement agencies have as a result declined to share those data.”

These findings suggest the need to revise the legislation on traffic stop race data collection in order to ensure complete data that is uniformly submitted so that it can be analyzed without excessive difficulty,” the report said.

“The work of uncovering and addressing unjustified racial disparities in policing is fundamentally important, affecting the lives of more than 30,000 [Black, indigenous and people of color] in Vermont,” the report said. “The killing of George Floyd is a recent testimony to the urgency of the work to address racism and racial bias in our criminal justice system, of which interactions with the police are the entry point. We hope this report serves as a tool for enlightened law enforcement agencies to do the hard work of examining in more detail their race data and adopting reforms, small and large. And our hope is that community members find these data accessible so that they can hold their law enforcement agencies accountable to meet the community’s desire for an eradication of racial bias in policing.”

The arrest rate of Black drivers is roughly 70 percent greater than that of white drivers, and 90 percent higher for Hispanic drivers, according to the report. “Some agency-level disparities were much wider. In Brattleboro, Black drivers’ arrest rate is 400 percent greater than the white rate; in Colchester, 185 percent times greater,” the report said.

Jim Therrien of the Banner and Chris Mays of the Reformer contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press also was used in this report. Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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