Courts & Corrections

ACLU report details racial disparities in marijuana arrests in Vermont

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.

A Vermont State Police trooper makes a traffic stop.
A Vermont State Police trooper makes a traffic stop.

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.

Statewide response

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.

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Hilary Niles

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  • sandra bettis

    i saw an arrest for possession the other day in the times argus – i thought pot was decriminalized – what’s up with that?

  • Christian Noll

    “No single authority oversees all of Vermont’s law enforcement agencies, according to Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell.”

    Sad but true.

    Vermont needs a separate, non-partisan, independent oversight committee to provide unbiased scrutiny to police actions (or inactions) that may warrant further investigation or disciplinary action.

    We’ve spoke of this in the past.

  • Brent Morton

    How much of this is statistical noise? I mean the ratio of whites to blacks in Vermont is about 87:1, I believe. I’m not a statistician but, I gather that this means that just one black person getting picked up for possession of pot cancels out the 87 who did not; versus in the white population-the inverse. I’m not implying that there is or, is not a bias in reality but, in statistics things get blurry when you water down the numbers and, magnifies things already magnified when you get crazy discrepancies like the racial statistics we have in Vermont.

    Maybe someone with a better handle on numbers could interpret this better.

  • David Black

    If minorities didn’t play the race card, what other excuse would they have?
    Shumlin only wanted to decriminalize small amounts of pot so his kids wouldn’t get a record.
    Smoke is smoke and is bad for you.
    “Be Vermont stoned”.

  • Jason Wells

    Sandra, Although I am not 100% on this I think Shumlin has not yet signed the decrim bill. In the past few I weeks I have noticed a very high number of simple possession arrests search warrants for small amounts in cars etc. Speaking to one local sheriff I got the impression that local cops are going hog wild with going after pot smokers before the bill gets signed.

  • Jason Farrell

    When H.200 is signed in to law by the Governor, the effective date for the bulk of its implementation is July 1, 2013. While “An Act Relating to Civil Penalties for Possession of Marijuana” is not “decriminalization”, it does change the penalty of possession of one ounce or less of marijuana by those over the age of 21 to a civil charge as opposed to the criminal charge it is today. Here’s a copy of the bill as passed by the legislature.

    • Christian Noll

      Jason thank you for posting H-200. Fifty-Seven pages of legislation can almost put anyone to sleep.

      It seems similar to the current under age drinking law.

  • Michael Bayer

    Just another example of the institutional racism that pervades American society. Vermonters would like to think that we are immune. No so. The only way to eliminate racism is to acknowledge its’ existence.

    I am afraid Vermonters are not yet ready for that step. if you want to know about racism in Vermont qsk a person of color. If you want to be in denial, ask a white Vermonter, especially a so-called liberal.

  • Moshe Braner

    The statistics in this article is difficult to interpret. For example: “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.” – does that mean that 4.36 as many African-Americans are “picked up for pot” in Vermont that whites? Not likely. It probably means that each individual is 4.36 times “more likely to be picked up for pot”. I.e., it is per capita. But if that is the correct interpretation, then the second half of the sentence, “although whites comprise 86.8 times more of the state’s residents than blacks”, is completely irrelevant, since the first part of the sentence, being per capita, already accounted for that.

    • Michael Bayer

      So much easier to prattle on about statistics than face up to the reality of racism in Vermont, isn’t it??

  • David Black

    The problem that Liberal academia is having is understanding what was found on the minorities during an apprehension. Everyone knows that minorities provide drugs to the white folks. The minorities need to get better at hiding the drugs and for god’s sake don’t run a red light or cross the solid yellow line.