'An issue that needs to be looked at'

Saturday June 29, 2013

Editor's note: This is the second 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 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.

According to the report, in the Green Mountain State, African Americans are 4.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. In Rutland County, that number jumped to nearly 17 percent more likely and in Windham County, it was nearly 10 times more likely.

"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.

Deputy Attorney General John Treadwell several years ago, the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended the state develop a bias-free policing policy. That task fell to the Attorney General's Office, even though it doesn't supervise the Green Mountain State's various law enforcement agencies.

"All we could say is here's a model policy," said Treadwell. "We think it has value and it works."

While some agencies adopted the policy, others developed their own, he said.

In addition, the Legislature recently enacted a bill directing the Law Enforcement Advisory Board to identify essential elements of a bias-free policing policy, based in part on the AG's recommendations.

"The policy we proposed specifically addresses the circumstances under which race and ethnicity may be considered by law enforcement," said Treadwell. "The only time it can be a factor is when you are investigating a specific incident and are looking for a specific person and race or ethnicity is part of that identification."

Even though the arrest rates in the ACLU report are extrapolated to a per-100,000 rate, Treadwell said the numbers are "concerning to say the least."

"There were undoubtedly significantly fewer arrests of black then there were of white people, but given the representation of African Americans in the community, the arrest rate is significantly higher," said Treadwell. "There is certainly a suggestion in the data that there is an issue that needs to be looked at."

The AG's Office has recommended that law enforcement agencies collect what is called "stop" data, and not just arrest information, but the Legislature balked at making it mandatory.

Vermont is one of two states, the other is Mississippi, that doesn't require the collection of stop data, said Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the ACLU's Vermont chapter.

"It's the sort of thing where if you really want to solve the problem, the least you have to do is get the information to determine how big a problem you have," he said.

The Vermont State Police is one agency that voluntarily collects stop data. In 2012, it issued a report that indicated troopers were not using race as a basis for traffic stops.

The report concluded that troopers stop very few drivers of color (4.4 percent) when compared to a state population which is 5.7 percent non-white.

VSP troopers also conduct relatively few searches, initiating searches in only 1 percent of all traffic stops. Of these searches troopers find contraband 73 percent of the time. However, analysis of the data did determine that non-white drivers were more likely to receive a ticket when compared to white drivers -- 52 percent versus 42 percent.

During the period of the study, non-white drivers were also more likely to be searched compared to white drivers. Additionally, fewer of the non-white searches found contraband on the driver.

"The data clearly indicate that the Vermont State Police had not engaged in racial profiling for the time period collected," said Curtiss Reed, Jr., the executive director of the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, offers bias-free policing training at law enforcement agencies around the state. The partnership, which is based in Brattleboro, was previously known as Alana.

"However," said Reed, "the data does indicate the need for greater personal scrutiny of implicit bias by state troopers in their discretionary powers to issue citations versus warnings to motorists. We strongly recommend that sheriff departments and local police departments follow the lead of state police and undertake similar efforts to improve law enforcement at the community level."

"We are 100-percent on board with collecting stop data," said Col. Tom L'Esperance, the commander of the Vermont State Police.

Since the stop-data report was issued, he said, the state police has been addressing the issues raised.

"It has a lot to do with training," said L'Esperance. "We are working very closely with Curtiss and have developed a partnership with his organization to help the state police get better at our craft. We've made great strides."

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 on how to recruit people of color to Vermont and what we can do to better suit their needs and their families," he said.

Despite the positive outcome of the stop-data analysis, L'Esperance doesn't believe stop data collection should be mandatory around the state.

"You get a better buy-in when things are not mandated."

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, lamented the fact that the Legislature did not make mandatory the collection of stop data. In 2002, people of color made up 5 percent of Vermont's prison population, said Appel. By 2012, that percentage had increased to 10.

"A number of law enforcement executives understand this is a significant issue," said Appel. "Some chiefs are engaged in trying to address the problem but many are not."

He said while the state police have come a long way, they could be doing more.

While it is collecting stop data, it analyzed it only in one year, claiming the cost, which was estimated to be $5,000, didn't fit into its nearly $100 million budget, said Appel.

"This is a lost opportunity and a terrible signal to the communities affected," said Appel.

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 purposes 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."

He said mandatory stop-data collection and analysis could help to address the problem, especially in communities that haven't taken a good, hard look at their policing activities.

In Monday's Reformer, Curtiss Reed, Jr., the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, explains the bias-free policing training the partnership offers to law enforcement agencies around the state.

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


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions