Editor’s note: This commentary is by Vermont Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, a Democrat from Burlington, who is clerk of the House Judiciary Committee. It was first published on her blog, “What Just Happened?”: a view from the State House (and other musings).
Equating blackness with criminality has become especially virulent in this country, as we all saw so vividly in the case of Trayvon Martin. We will never know what went on in George Zimmerman’s mind, but it seems clear to many of us that he followed Martin because Martin was black, which for many white Americans means “up to no good.” And certainly the defense’s case rested on portraying Martin as a monster and Zimmerman as having every reason to fear him. This is the definition of racial profiling — the practice of suspecting someone of breaking the law simply because of his or her race. We will never know exactly what happened that night, but what began with Zimmerman’s following of Trayvon Martin led ultimately to Martin’s death.
This appalling case has made clear to many Americans that we’ve got to work a lot harder to eliminate racial profiling. It happens everywhere, including in Vermont, as the data confirms.
African-Americans make up 1.1 percent of Vermont’s general population, but 10 percent of our prison population — the second highest rate of disproportionality in the country. A national study by the ACLU earlier this year showed that African-Americans in Vermont are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that blacks and whites use marijuana at essentially equal rates.
We must require all the other law enforcement agencies in the state to collect race data on traffic stops (as happens in most other states). We must also require that all agencies analyze the data they collect, in order to monitor how well their bias-free policies are working — and to increase training where necessary.
A 2012 study of local traffic stops also showed disparities. A black driver is twice as likely to be stopped by the Burlington police as a white driver and also has a much higher probability of being searched once stopped. A black driver stopped by the Vermont State Police is four and a half times more likely to be searched than a white driver. A black driver stopped in South Burlington is five times more likely to be searched than a white driver. The phrase “driving while black” describes the experience common to many African-Americans of being stopped by law enforcement for no reason other than one’s race.
Two years ago, the Legislature required all law enforcement agencies to adopt bias-free policing policies, but collecting data was voluntary. The Vermont State Police and several local agencies including Burlington already had bias-free policies, and some agencies — Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski, the State Police and UVM — also voluntarily collected racial stop data. These agencies are genuinely committed to discovering bias and working against it and are to be commended for their leadership. Last year we mandated a study of racial bias throughout the judicial system, knowing that the current epidemic of mass incarceration is the result of bias at many different points. We await the results of that study.
In the meantime, traffic stops remain a significant bellwether. Here we can and need to do a lot more. We must require all the other law enforcement agencies in the state to collect race data on traffic stops (as happens in most other states). We must also require that all agencies analyze the data they collect, in order to monitor how well their bias-free policies are working — and to increase training where necessary. The Vermont State Police must make it a priority to analyze the two years’ worth of race data they currently have.
Collecting and analyzing data will not eliminate racial profiling, but it will allow police to identify patterns that need addressing so officers can avoid becoming involuntary instruments of community racism and become instead the instruments of justice that they want to be.