Racial profiling in Vermont

Saturday February 18, 2012

Earlier this week, the Vermont State Police released the results of a study, conducted by the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, which showed some disparity in traffic stops and ticketing of white drivers vs. non-white drivers.

The statistics used in the report were drawn from 49,672 traffic stops performed by 275 troopers between July 2010 and June 2011, according to the Associated Press. The most significant difference came in the percentage of drivers who were issued citations rather than warnings after being stopped -- 42 percent of white drivers were given tickets, while 52 percent of non-white drivers were ticketed.

There were smaller differences in which non-whites were more likely to be stopped and, once stopped, have their vehicles searched. But interestingly, non-whites were less likely to be found with contraband, which is counter to the stereotype that minorities are more likely than whites to do and sell drugs.

Racial profiling has been an ongoing problem in this country for years. Some use phrases like "driving while black" to describe the discriminatory practice of police officers who pull people over and put them under tighter scrutiny because of the color of their skin.

Before we aim such accusations against our State Police, however, let’s put this week’s report into perspective.

The American Civil Liberties Union in 2007 issued a press release highlighting a Department of Justice report on racial profiling that showed "an alarming racial disparity" in the rate at which motorists are searched by local law enforcement across the nation.

The report found that blacks and Hispanics were roughly three times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, blacks were twice as likely to be arrested and blacks were nearly four times as likely to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police, according to Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project.

Then there are the extreme cases that have been reported more recently, like the four police officers in East Haven, Conn., who were arrested by the FBI last month on charges of harassing and intimidating Latino residents.

The indictment charges that from 2007 through 2011, they "did knowingly conspire and agree together ... to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate various members of the East Haven community" and deprive them of the constitutional right "to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures," according to a report from the New Haven Register.

The FBI says the officers conducted unreasonable, illegal searches at Latino-owned businesses, routinely parked patrol cars in front of those businesses, regularly made traffic stops of Latino customers of the businesses, towed customers’ vehicles and arrested or detained them. Then, according to the indictment, the officers filed false reports to support their abuses and harassed and intimidated individuals who tried to report or investigated the alleged abuse.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. made matters worse when, answering a reporter’s question about how he would respond to the arrests, he said that he might have tacos for dinner. That one flippant comment made national headlines, including an editorial in the New York Times calling for Maturo’s resignation.

"He has shown a stunning incapacity for understanding the severity of the scandal in his government and has been fatally compromised by his knee-jerk support for the tainted police department and its chief," the newspaper wrote. "The mayor’s repugnant remark is the least of it. This case is about institutional brutality and oppression.

"The East Haven case is one squalid part of the far larger furor over immigration, where Spanish-speaking people are met with suspicion and abuse and states and localities rush to pass laws empowering local police officers to harass presumed illegal immigrants," the editorial continued.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in Arizona. In April 2010, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that requires police officers in that state to ask people for their papers based only on some undefined "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country unlawfully.

"We believe this law, which invites racial profiling in the worst way, is unconstitutional, and we are challenging the law with a coalition of other civil rights groups," stated Parker from the ACLU.

Vermont chose the oppose approach of Arizona. In November, the state revised its bias-free policing policy after the detention of two Mexican farm workers who were riding in a car that was stopped for speeding. The AP reported that the new policy stressed that state police would not ask about an individual’s immigration status during an investigation into a civil matter.

The report on traffic stops released earlier this week also indicates an effort by state officials to reverse the trend of racial profiling. First of all, the report was not a federal probe. It was done at the request of -- and this is important here -- the Vermont State Police.

Is there room for improvement? Certainly, but instead of getting defensive or making offensive remarks about eating tacos, the police plan to use the report as a tool to improve training and create better relations between the state police and Vermont’s small minority population.

"One of the things that this report shows is that we are willing to critically look at ourselves and say, ‘Hey, where can we be now?’" Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn told the AP. "How can we get better at this, and that’s what this is all about."

We couldn’t agree more.


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