Monday July 1, 2013

Editor's note: This is the final story 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 -- The Rutland Police Department is a good example of a law enforcement agency that is making all of the right moves to reduce racial profiling, said Curtiss Reed, Jr., the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, which offers bias-free policing training at law enforcement agencies around the state.

"The police department has taken on a leadership role," said Reed. It's done so by cultivating relationships with other agencies and is redefining its law enforcement narrative by returning to community policing.

"They've reconfigured the map of the city in terms of quadrants and assigned one sergeant to each quadrant," he said.

Recently, Reed was in Rutland, conducting training with Rutland police officers and some members of the Vermont State Police. Part of the training is to help officers understand their own social identity and how that drives their own perceptions on the job.

"How do you compensate for that in your police work?"

Admittedly, he said, it takes resources to conduct intensive training such as that offered by the partnership, but departments such as that in Rutland understand how important it is.


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"It's not simply lip service. They're doing the work," said Reed, adding state police leadership also understands the importance of bias-free policing.

He commended the leadership for its role in adopting a policy proposed by the Vermont Attorney General's Office and training its troopers in how to implement bias-free policing.

"Not only in the letter of the policy, but also in the spirit of the policy."

But the policy is only a good starting point, said Reed.

"We work with the AG's policy, but the training is not about the policy per se because you can memorize it in 10 minutes. This is about how to practice the policy."

However, Reed was not as complimentary toward the Brattleboro Police Department, which turned down his offer to present a training course to its officers.

"It has not made the investment in the training that's necessary," said Reed. "What it has done is used an online training tool that covers the basics of bias-free policing. That is the least effective way of engaging officers in understanding the conundrum of bias-free policing. That comes with face-to-face live training."

While Reed understands the fiscal constraints the Brattleboro Police Department is under, he believes it could be doing more to train its officers.

But Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn disputed Reed's contention.

"We have a policy in place and I truly we believe that we do not profile or conduct biased policing."

And for those who feel they might have been unfairly treated, the Brattleboro Police Department has an avenue of complaint, he said.

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

Still, Reed claimed the Brattleboro Police Department needs to do more. He said he recently received "a rash of calls" from people attending the recent graduation of SIT Graduate Institute, accusing local law enforcement of racial profiling.

Reed said the calls coincided with a recent kidnapping incident in Brattleboro in which four African Americans were arrested.

"We received a number of calls from visitors to the graduation that they were pulled over," said Reed, though the callers weren't clear on which agency was doing the pulling over.

This is indicative of a critical aspect of Vermont that law enforcement agencies need to consider when implementing bias-free policing, said Reed. As Vermont attempts to build awareness about its brand, especially in a multi-cultural audience, the state needs to insure visitors have a quality experience.

"That includes shopkeepers, the workforce and the hospitality industry, as well as law enforcement agencies," said Reed.

But most of the time, the only government official a visitor comes in contact with is a police officer, he said, whether that's because they may be driving too fast or they're a victim of a crime.

"How they walk away from that encounter determines what they say on social media," said Reed.

The Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, which is located in Brattleboro, was formerly known as ALANA. Previously, ALANA handled individual cases of discrimination. The Vermont Partnership is taking a bigger view, said Reed.

"This is more an issue of economics," said Reed. "Our focus is on getting organizations and institutions to understand we're positioning Vermont to attract greater numbers of tourists of color."

Part of that efforts was in helping the Vermont Department of Tourism to develop an African American Heritage Trail.

"This is being promoted throughout the world," said Reed. "The Department of Tourism gets it and it understands we can expand the economic pie by expanding who we market the state to. The issue is, are we prepared?"

According to recent report from the ACLU, Vermont's policing practices are not in line with the state's goals of attracting more people of color.

"It's pretty clear Vermont has some racial profiling problems," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU.

"Good cops know that racial profiling is bad policing," he said. "That's why they want to get rid of profiling."

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."

Richards also said even if police were able to eliminate racial profiling all together, it's still a community issue, as indicated by Reed.

"The community as a whole has issues related to race across different services and institutions and among people," she said.

Col. Tom L'Esperance, the commander of the Vermont State Police, said the partnership's training program is helping his troopers get better at their job.

L'Esperance said understanding cultural identity is crucial in developing a trooper's understanding of his or her own biases and how they may affect the application of their duties.

"As tough as it is to admit, we all have biases. We try to recognize them and insure they are checked at the door and we don't bring them out at our job."

In addition to keeping up to date on the best training methods to implement bias-free policing, L'Esperance said the Vermont State Police is also pulling out all the stops to recruit people with different backgrounds to its ranks.

"We are having conversations with Curtiss now how to recruit people of color to Vermont and what we can do to better suit their needs and their families," he said.

Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, who is the president of the Vermont Sheriff's Association, said his deputies have participated in some of the partnership's workshops.

Working with Reed helps his deputies to see issues from a different perspective, said Clark.

"There are still departments that are reticent or reluctant to have bias-free training," said Clark. "But it's not just about race. It also has to do with mental health and cognitive disability issues. Anytime you can better understand the issues, the better off you will be."

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 training programs such as that offered by Reed have helped the state make strides in reducing racial profiling, but it still has a long way to go.

Racial profiling and heavy-handed treatment of people of color discourages some people from relying on police services, he said.

"When that happens, it makes all of us less safe."

Appel noted that African Americans make up a disproportionate amount of people under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.

In 2002, people of color made up 5 percent of Vermont's prison population, said Appel. By 2012, that percentage had increased to 10. In 2012, Vermont had a population of a little more than 626,000, of which African Americans made up 1.1 percent.

"The notion that we are making progress is belied by the increase in rates of incarceration, particularly of African Americans," said Appel.

Some people in Vermont have the attitude that that means black people commit crimes at a higher rate than white people, said Appel, but a closer reading of statistics reveals black people are more likely to be prosecuted for the same crimes than white people.

"If you talk to young black men in the community, they all have stories," he said.

In 2012, the Uncommon Alliance, which consisted of four police agencies in the Burlington area and a grass-roots community group, released an analysis of stop data collected between 2009 and 2010.

"Once stopped, African Americans were nine times more likely to be searched," said Appel. "It may not be an intentional bias, but the data indicates bias is in play."

In general, the report concluded that black people were 25 percent more likely to be stopped than white people, that black drivers were 85 percent more likely to be stopped for "investigatory" purposes than white drivers, and that black drivers received higher penalties for the same infractions than white drivers.

"But white people use drugs at a higher rate than black people," said Appel. "That's not equal justice under the law."

Nonetheless, he said, the conversation started by the ACLU's report, the collection of stop data by the Vermont State Police and the willingness of some agencies to participate in programs such as that offered by the partnership are all good signs that Vermonters aren't ignoring the issue.

"These conversations were not happening 20 years ago," said Appel.

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