BRATTLEBORO — As efforts to address the racial disparity in traffic stops in Brattleboro and other Vermont communities continue, the town has 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 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 and 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, during that five-year period, Black drivers in Brattleboro were searched on 2.8 percent of traffic stops, compared to 0.3 percent of white drivers. In total, police stopped 18,025 white motorists and 576 Black drivers between 2014-19, according the data.
Similar discrepancies were reported in Manchester, where 2.5 percent of Black motorists and 2.1 percent of Hispanic drivers who had been stopped were searched, compared to 0.5 percent of stopped white motorists; and in Bennington, where 1.2 percent of stopped white motorists were searched, compared to 4.6 percent of stopped Black motorists and 1.9 percent of Hispanic motorists.
In Brattleboro, 23.3 percent of stops involving Black drivers resulted in a traffic ticket, compared to 12.7 percent of white drivers, 13.8 percent of Asian motorists and 15.2 percent of Hispanic drivers, according to the report.
The Brattleboro Select Board commissioned a report on community safety in September, which was released Jan. 1 and includes a recommendation for the local police department to “deeply analyze” racial disparities in traffic stops. The facilitators hired for the project suggest reviewing all arrests and searches of drivers from the period of the study, which they discussed with the Community Safety Review Committee during meetings.
The Select Board is currently considering how to address suggested action items, which also include acknowledging racism and other negative encounters in the community, disarming officers for certain calls, and freezing the police training budget until needs are assessed. In a recent op-ed, Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel said he looks forward to making “progress toward greater equity for all of our residents, and more ‘seats at the table’ for marginalized Brattleboro communities.”
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.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Chris Mays contributed to this report.