There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence of racial profiling by Vermont police, and in 2014, lawmakers decided they wanted to find out severe the problem really is.
They approved legislation requiring every police agency in the state to collect traffic-stop data that included the driver’s race. But public records requests now reveal that two years after its passage, many departments aren’t complying with the statute.
When University of Vermont professor Stephanie Seguino began analyzing roadside stop data compiled by the Burlington Police Department over the past three years, she quickly discovered startling racial disparities in its work.
Black drivers are far more likely than white drivers to be pulled over by cops, and far more likely to have their cars searched when they are. Her findings have prompted a city-wide conversation about how to address the disparities, and Seguino credits one thing above all with shining some light onto the problem.
“Data is the key to understanding patterns in racial disparities in policing,” Seguino says.
In theory, data needed to conduct similar analyses in other jurisdictions should be available from all of the more than 70 law-enforcement agencies in Vermont, thanks to a 2014 law that requires them to document the age, race and gender of the driver for every roadside stop they conduct.
VPR’s requests for much of that data shows compliance is spotty in many cases, and nonexistent in others.
“The biggest concern I have in looking at the quality of the data is that in a substantial number of cases, the race of the driver is not being recorded, which is of course the goal of this work,” Seguino says.
The town of Berlin wasn’t able to provide any roadside stop data at all. And the Bennington County Sheriff’s Office said it would cost $750 to view roadside stop records that are, by statute, supposed to be readily available to the public.
Police cited various reasons for shortcomings in the data. An employee at the Berlin Police Department, for example, said failure to collect the data was an oversight that would now be rectified.
“We don’t seem to have all the data that we need, and the data that we do have is not in a form that is easily accessible to the public and that can be easily analyzed,” says Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocated strongly for the 2014 law.
Some statistical oddities call into question the validity of the data in some departments. VPR requested the roadside stop data of about 20 police agencies from Sept. 1 2014, when the data-collection law went into effect, through Dec. 31, 2015.
Barre City provided VPR with records indicating it had performed slightly more than 350 roadside stops during that time frame – and average of less than one stop per day at a department with 18 officers, not including the chief.
Montpelier, meanwhile, despite having fewer officers on staff, performed 10 times more roadside stops than Barre City during the same time frame, according to data it provided.
Seguino says even in towns where the data might otherwise be useful, it isn’t being formatted in ways that would allow someone like her to conduct an in-depth analysis.
Gilbert says the goal of the statute was to not only to determine whether racial profiling is occurring in Vermont, but to pinpoint pockets where it’s most severe, so that policymakers can act accordingly.
“The law might look pretty good, but whether it actually does the trick is a whole other question,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert says the state needs to require data not only on the drivers’ race, the outcome of the stop and the reason for it, as is required by current law, but also on the identities of the police conducting those stops.
“It could be that we don’t have as big a problem as some numbers might indicate, because it’s really only a small number of officers who are profiling, rather than everybody,” Gilbert says. “But we don’t know that, and we’re going to be able to need to identify the specific officers if we want to make real progress on this.”
Robert Appel was director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission for more than a decade, and now works in private practice where he often represents clients who have experienced alleged civil rights violations.
Appel says the impact of racial profiling on people of color in this state is profound.
“And if you have conversations with people of color in the community, you’re going to hear tales of what they consider to be police harassment, that’s in their view race-based, and I hear a lot of those stories,” Appel says.
Appel has a case pending with the Human Rights Commission on behalf of an African American woman stopped on Interstate 89 by municipal police for following a car too closely. When officers smelled dryer sheets in her vehicle, according to Appel, they stopped the woman for two hours while the searched her car.
They found nothing.
“She’s now looking to leave,” Appel says of the woman, who is an employee of the federal government. “She’s applied to transfer out of state. She does not want to be here. That is not to me Vermont values, that is not what we’re about, hopefully.”
Seguino says her work is inspired in part by demographic trends indicating that people of color will soon make up a greater portion of the population in what is now one of the whitest states in the nation. Seguino says eliminating racial disparities in policing will be key to relieving mounting social tension between whites and so-called minorities.
“The cost of not doing that is severe social problems that have disrupted many countries and many cities in the United States in the past decades,” Seguino says. “And my hope is that Vermont and Burlington can do it differently.”
Gilbert says laws passed in Montpelier, as has been demonstrated in this case, are useless unless there’s someone to enforce them. He says policymakers aren’t likely to address the issue in a meaningful way until the public demands it.
“And I think on an issue like this, the public has to lead,” Gilbert says. “And I hope that people will do that.”
If they don’t, Appel says, then Vermont risks fostering a hostile environment for people of color who might otherwise call it home.
“I mean, if we want to maintain our whitest-state-in-the-nation status, well, this may be a strategy to do it,” Appel says. “I for one don’t want to go that route.”
Lawmakers are considering legislation that would provide greater oversight of race data collection by police, and provide funding for a central authority to analyze it.