Friday June 28, 2013

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series presenting the local issues raised by a recent ACLU report detailing racial profiling related to African Americans and marijuana possession arrests in the United States.

BRATTLEBORO -- Even though African Americans make up only about 1 percent of the population in Windham County, they are nearly 10 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU report, "Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests," is the first ever to examine state and county marijuana arrest rates nationally by race.

In general, Vermont didn't fare well.

Over a 10-year period, African Americans accounted for 81 percent of the total marijuana possession arrests in Vermont, while whites accounted for 19 percent, even though use rates are equal.

"The outsized proportion of African-American arrests, therefore, is a strong indication that blacks are targeted by police for more aggressive enforcement," stated the report.

"Racial profiling is not acceptable in Vermont," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of ACLU-VT. "We, as a state, need to do more to make sure it doesn't happen."

Karen Richards, the new executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Council, said she was not surprised by the ACLU's report.

"We have a lot of issues in Vermont we are trying to work through," she said. "This is one of them."

In Windham County, between 2001 and 2010, 65 black people have been arrested for possession of marijuana. By comparison, in that same time period, 1,536 white people were arrested for that same offense. Though the numbers of arrests of African Americans appears low, when it is held up against the population of blacks in the county, the arrest rate is high, according to the ACLU report.

"Taken at face value, the numbers could be construed by some to mean that all of law enforcement in Vermont is profiling to some extent or the other," said Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, who is also president of the Vermont Sheriff's Association. He frequently reviews the cases his deputies present for criminal prosecution.

"There is nothing to indicate there are issues regarding race in this department," he said.

Clark called into question the ACLU's statistical analysis, noting it's much too small a sampling for anyone to reach a definitive conclusion. He also wondered how many of the arrests were on Interstate 91 and involved people who are not residents of the county.

"That is going to skew the numbers for Windham County," said Clark.

Clark, like other law enforcement officials in the region, said people draw attention to themselves by their activity, not because of their color.

"When my deputies are making drug arrests, they're our neighbors," said Clark.

Tracy Shriver, Windham County State's Attorney, agreed with Clark.

"The majority of the people prosecuted in the county are white."

Shriver noted that many first-time offenders go to diversion and don't end up in court, but just the same, she said "I am not aware of racial profiling."

Vermont State Police Capt. Ray Keefe, commander of Troop D, with barracks in Brattleboro, Rockingham and Royalton, said the state police has a robust anti-bias policy in place.

"I work at three different barracks and I see who comes in. There is not a high number of minorities. I see many many white people arrested for marijuana possession in the state, but I don't see that many minorities."

Just the same, said Keefe, he was concerned when he read the ACLU report.

"When I saw the report, it was a little shocking. If it's happening, it needs to be stopped."

Keefe said if he was to discover that any of the troopers under his supervision were engaging in racial profiling he would be "the first to take harsh action."

"It's a hot topic for us," he said.

Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn said his department has an anti-bias policy in place, which he believes is quite effective.

"I truly we believe that we do not profile or conduct biased policing," he said.

In addition, the Brattleboro Police Department has an avenue of complaint for those who feel they were unfairly singled out, said Wrinn.

"We have the citizen/police committee. If people have a concern or complaint, they can go through that process."

Wrinn said the city's officers are well aware of their duties and their responsibilities to the community.

"We have a great group of law enforcement professionals that do their job," he said. "They police behavior."

But Robert Appel, who was the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Council for more than 11 years and the Vermont Defender General for more than eight years, said Vermont has made strides in reducing racial profiling, but it still has a long way to go.

"Over the past 20 years there have certainly been positive changes, but obviously there are still problems," he said. "A number of law enforcement executives understand this is a significant issue. Some chiefs are engaged in trying to address the problem but many are not."

In Saturday's Reformer, state officials address issues of racial profiling in Vermont.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.