Sheriff

Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson test-drives a new Tesla on Oct. 15, 2020, that was to be converted into a police vehicle.

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BRATTLEBORO — Voters in three towns will have the opportunity to encourage the Windham County Sheriff’s Office to opt out from working with federal immigration authorities.

The Windham County No Más Polimigra campaign, which seeks reforms to local fair and impartial policing policies, has succeeded in placing articles on the 2022 Town Meeting ballots in Putney, Marlboro and Dummerston, asking voters to urge the sheriff’s office to close specific loopholes pertaining to communication and cooperation with federal immigration agents.

“Many folks said they were shocked to learn that current policy allows a Sheriff’s deputy, in the process of pulling someone over for something as simple as a missing tail light, to call federal immigration authorities,” stated Putney organizer Jane Katz Field in a news release. “Our local police should not be in the business of deportations.”

The non-binding articles include reforms such as tightening the legal requirements for sharing information; specifying that immigration status cannot be grounds for arrest, citation or detention; protecting the confidentiality of victims and witnesses of crimes; eliminating mere suspicion of illegal border crossing as an excuse for detention; and preventing local holding cells from doubling as federal immigration detention centers.

The Windham County campaign is part of a statewide movement led by Justicia Migrante (Migrant Justice), a Vermont organization whose mission is to build the voice, capacity, and power of the farmworker community and engage community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights.

In 2017, Vermont adopted its model Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, which Justicia Migrante contends contains the targeted loopholes. The policy was adopted by Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson’s predecessor, Keith Clark, along with most departments and offices in the state.

In 2019, the Vermont Legislature passed H.518, allowing local departments to increase protections beyond the state’s requirements.

The reforms have so far been adopted in Winooski, Burlington, South Burlington, Hartford, Norwich, and Richmond. The Addison County Sheriff’s Office reformed its policy in 2020. Brattleboro Police Department made the changes in 2021.

A petition must receive approval from 5 percent of voters to appear on a town meeting ballot.

The news release states that Anderson has been resistant to cutting ties with federal immigration authorities.

“He claims that reform is not necessary because he and his deputies have not involved themselves with immigration authorities, and that reforms can only be made at the conclusion of an indefinite reassessment of the state policy underway by the Vermont Criminal Justice Council,” states the release. “To resist codifying these protections contradicts the Sheriff’s stated pride in his intentions. There is also an election for the office this November, when Sheriff Anderson could conceivably be replaced. In the meantime, any deputy is free to exploit these loopholes at any time they might desire, without any basis for accountability.”

However, in “an open letter” issued on Wednesday regarding his office’s fair and impartial policing policy, Anderson stated the culture at the Windham County Sheriff’s Office for more than a decade has been “to embrace humanity, including around issues such as equity, implicit and explicit bias, and fair and impartial policing.”

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“There are no indicators of implicit or explicit bias that have been identified within the department [and] there are no indicators of bias relating to searches,” he wrote. “My predecessor, Sheriff Keith Clark, and I have adopted policies and training initiatives well before state mandates as part of our commitment to progress, best practices, modernization, and professionalization of law enforcement in Windham County and Vermont. Our current policy conforms to the Vermont’s model policy and raises the standards.”

He noted his office has discussed its policy with select boards, town managers, lawmakers, the ACLU, Migrant Justice, and a number of organizations and state agencies.

“I am not aware of, nor have I been provided any examples in which a Windham County Sheriff’s deputy has exercised or acted in any of the ways suggested by No Mas Polimigra’s campaign — I would be horrified if something like that was occurring in the department I’m responsible for,” he wrote.

Anderson also noted that the Vermont Criminal Justice Council is in the process of updating the model policy, which includes language suggested by No Mas Polimigra.

“We will again revise our fair and impartial policing policy once it is finalized by the VCJC,” he wrote.

In the report titled “Trends in Racial Disparities in Vermont Traffic Stops,” one of the measures used by the report for determining biased policing included the analysis of a Disparity Index, where anything over 1 indicates a greater likelihood of a reported population to be stopped.

Agencies that have since adopted No Mas Polimigra’s proposed changes, wrote Anderson, include Brattleboro at 1.6, Burlington at 1.74, Hartford at 2.63, South Burlington at 2.07 DI, Winooski at 3.33, and the Addison County Sheriff’s Office at 1.16.

“The Windham County Sheriff’s Office had a 0.28 disparity index,” noted Anderson.

Anderson also pointed out that for at least the last eight years, the Windham County Sheriff’s Office has not been involved in any civil immigration enforcement, shared information with nor contacted federal immigration authorities regarding any investigation, found any indicators of explicit or implicit bias enforcement in its traffic stop and race data reports, conducted any border enforcement, or found any data suggesting it provided federal immigration officials access to people in its custody.

Anderson also wrote that minority populations are stopped by his department so infrequently that it falls below the thresholds for statistical significance.

“Despite no identifiable examples, we continue our work to improve the policy.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.