An analysis of traffic stop data from four police departments in Chittenden County shows that blacks are more often stopped by law enforcement than their white and Asian counterparts.
The two-year study, spearheaded by a University of Vermont professor, shows that blacks are two times more likely to be to pulled over than whites in Burlington and South Burlington.
Data for the analysis was collected by four law enforcement agencies: Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and the University of Vermont police departments. The information was gathered in 2009 and 2010.
Blacks in Winooski were 10 percent more likely to be stopped by the police. The pullover rate for blacks on the University of Vermont campus was 25 percent.
The police agencies began voluntarily collecting the data several years ago. The effort is an outgrowth of Uncommon Alliance, a nonprofit group that holds forums between community members and local police officers. The meetings are designed to ease tensions between the minority community and law enforcement. The alliance raised questions about racial and ethnic profiling by police and the courts and pushed for police training, new bias-free policing policies and a statistical analysis of racial disparities. This is the second year the local agencies have publicly disclosed race collection data.
Wanda Hines, one of the founders of Uncommon Alliance, said the coalition between communities of color and local law enforcement has led to an ongoing dialog and voluntary cooperation between the two groups.
“Uncommon Alliance efforts have created valuable trust where all voices have the opportunity to come to the table and be heard,” Hines said.
In other states, race data collection has been mandated by the courts or by statute. The four Chittenden County municipal police departments voluntarily began a statistical analysis of police practices in 2009. Each agency has also adopted bias-free policing policies and provided anti-discrimination training for officers.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police honored the four Chittenden County agencies with a civil rights award this year for their work with the community and self-reflective changes to standard operations.
Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling hailed the release of the data as an important step toward eliminating racial bias in policing. He characterized the work with Uncommon Alliance as a solid foundation for building mutual trust between the community and law enforcement.
“The issue of race disparity in our country is one filled with passion and emotion and an extensive and often tragic history,” Schirling said. “Embedded in that history are images and stories of police the law enforcement of government and the entire criminal justice system being used as a direct instrumentality of racism and bias. Those images exist in stark contrast to the values of the justice system that we strive to uphold every day. Sadly this history tarnished the integrity of these critical institutions which exist to translate the ideal of equality before law into practice.”
Schirling eschewed the phrase “racial profiling.” His agency reviewed all arrests over the last two years and overt racism, he said, was not a factor for individual officers. Underlying racial biases, he said, subtly affect police work and accounts for the disparity in stop rates.
“Today, realizing that disparity continues to exist in the criminal justice system at all levels, we are committed to working tirelessly to both learn and distance ourselves from those historic events, to grow as a community as organizations and as individuals,” Schirling said.
In Burlington, black male drivers were stopped 307 times over the two-year period, while whites were pulled over 150 times. Blacks were twice as likely to be arrested.
In South Burlington, the stop rate disparity was even wider — 530 blacks and 263 whites were pulled over in the same time period. Blacks were six times more likely to be searched and five times more likely to be arrested than whites in the wealthy suburban city.
Matty Tanner, a black Burlington resident and member of the alliance, told reporters at a press conference that race wasn’t a factor when he was growing up. Tanner had an idyllic childhood in Duxbury, he said, but once he got behind the wheel at age 16, he found he was treated differently than his white peers, even though he came from the same socioeconomic background. Tanner’s friend, Jose Perez, who also lives in Burlington, said he had been pulled over for traffic stops as many as 30 times in a single year.
“After a certain age, my experiences and those of my peers started to diverge in some instances,” Tanner said. “In school we were taught that every American is born with certain irrevocable rights related to the Constitution, and the exact limits to those right further articulated by the Supreme Court. These are all things I believed to be true right up until the time I became a black motorist.”
Tanner thanked police departments for addressing the issue “head on,” but he alleged that there is “a statistical racial bias throughout the criminal justice continuum,” and he made a reference to statistics that show higher rates of arrests and prosecutions for blacks and longer sentences for similar offenses and lower likelihood of parole.
“These figures (the Chittenden County data) finally will give a concrete voice to concerns I’ve been living with, concerns that up to now have largely been dismissed as anecdotal,” Tanner said.
If a bill now pending in the Legislature, H.535, is approved by the Senate and signed into law by the governor, all 73 local police agencies in the state will be required to collect race data.
The Vermont State Police began an analysis of traffic stop patterns last year. The state agency collects data on white and non-white stops. Under H.535, local law enforcement would develop a similar system.
Aggregated race data that doesn’t track traffic stops separately for Asians, Hispanics and blacks, may not provide a clear picture of police behavior, according to Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. That’s because Asians are only half as likely as whites to be stopped by police. Lumped together, the non-white data could be skewed as a result, he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:56 a.m. April 3.