The state ranks 15th in the nation and first in New England when comparing discrepancies in arrest rates of whites versus nonwhites for marijuana possession. African-Americans in Vermont are 4.36 times more likely to be picked up for pot than whites, although whites comprise 86.8 times more of the state’s residents than blacks. The discrepancy in arrest rates exceeds the national average of blacks being 3.73 more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Despite years of study and attention from state agencies and local police, racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates persist in Vermont, according to a new study by the American Civil Liberties Union titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.”
The findings follow the Vermont Legislature’s recent vote to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, which arguably makes a moot point of the arrest data but shifts attention to future rates at which Vermonters will be ticketed for possessing more than one ounce of the drug. It also follows longstanding allegations of racial profiling by Vermont’s state and local police.
Perceptions and profiling
The ACLU report, which presents findings at both the state and county levels, shows that African-Americans in Vermont’s Rutland County were 16.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites between 2001 and 2010. That compares to 3.8 times in Chittenden County.
“Every human being has implicit biases,” Rutland Police Chief James Baker said. The difference between police and the public is that police have the authority to express those biases in unethical ways, he says. That’s where training comes in.
Baker said he intends to look closely at the report. Due to the small number of minorities in his city, “a few arrests can throw the numbers off,” he points out. “But 16.8 times more likely is enough to get my attention.”
Baker moved to local law enforcement after retiring from his position as a Vermont State Police colonel. He notices a marked difference between the pressures police officers face at the state versus municipal levels. Locally, police are closer to the people they serve and therefore feel a different need to be responsive to their needs and demands., he said.
“If you don’t build filters with training, it’s very easy for the police department to take on the personality of the community,” Baker says. That said, he’s not sure what explains the variation in racial discrepancies among Vermont counties.
The ACLU report shows the discrepancy in statewide arrest rates between whites and nonwhites has fluctuated, but risen overall, in the past decade. In 2001, blacks were less than three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession but nearly 5.5 times more likely in 2004.
After Rutland County, Windham County showed the highest discrepancy rate at 9.6, followed by Windsor County at 6.8, Caledonia at 4.7, and Chittenden at 3.8. Washington and Franklin counties showed no discrepancy.
The study compared FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data to U.S. Census data to determine the arrest rates, analyzing data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Iowa and Washington, D.C., ranked at the top for racial discrepancies in marijuana arrests. Blacks are over eight times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites in each place.
Combatting police bias
Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, says she is not surprised the rates of discrepancy have risen in recent years. “It’s not easy to get at through policy or training,” she said. Richards believes both are helpful and should be continued, but she doesn’t think they can solve the problem alone. “It’s a bigger community issue and it needs a community approach.”
Burlington is home to a history of perceived racial profiling and to the Uncommon Alliance, a collective effort by four police departments and several community groups to “dismantle racial and ethnic profiling in our criminal justice system.”
The police departments of Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and the University of Vermont all started collecting what’s known as “stop data” in 2009. The records track the race of individuals stopped for traffic violations then trace the results of those stops, controlling for race, to reveal any discrepancies in treatment. Collection of stop data, like the arrest data in the ACLU’s report, is not proposed as a solution in itself, but rather as a prompt for deliberate dialogue among community members.
The ACLU’s data, while not portrayed on a city level, shows that Chittenden County’s disparity in marijuana arrests spiked in 2004, with a rate of 4.5, dopped to 1.4 in 2008, and rose again to reach 3.8 in 2010.
The Vermont State Police also have instituted stop data collection, a recommended practice dating back to at least 2008, when the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights suggested that all state law enforcement agencies do so. That briefing was issued in response to concerns that “inaction or ineffective action with regard to racial profiling will breed greater distrust between law enforcement and persons of color” as Vermont continues to diversify.
Last winter, a study of traffic stops by the Vermont State Police found some discrepancy in the pattern of ticketing drivers or searching cars. Whites were ticketed and their cars searched less often than non-whites, although contraband was more likely to be found in their vehicles. Similar findings came from a two-year study, released last spring, of the Uncommon Alliance police departments in Chittenden County.
Richards suspects that Burlington’s relative diversity positions it better than other communities in Vermont to mobilize against racially biased policing. An area like Caledonia County, she says, with a very small minority population and more limited infrastructure and transportation options, might have a hard time finding traction to make the issue a community priority.
No single authority oversees all of Vermont’s law enforcement agencies, according to Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell. The AG’s office has developed a model anti-bias policing policy, however, which local police departments are encouraged to adopt or adapt.
The state’s Law Enforcement Advisory Board last year established “key components of fair and impartial policing policies.” The general guidelines include recommendations such as establishing a training program, clarifying when disclosure of an individual’s race is appropriate, accountability procedures and special considerations regarding immigration status.
Neither Treadwell nor Richards are aware of law enforcement agencies other than the Vermont State Police and those departments involved in the Uncommon Alliance that collect stop data, although Baker indicated that the Rutland Police Department has plans to do so. In 2012, all Vermont police departments were mandated to adopt a bias-free policy with the passage of H.535.