Courts & Corrections

Advocates say state needs stronger bias-free police laws

Enrique Jimenez, a migrant farmworker talks to lawmakers via interpreter Abel Luna. Photo by Laura Krantz
Enrique Jimenez, a migrant farmworker talks to lawmakers via interpreter Abel Luna. Photo by Laura Krantz
The law that is supposed to thwart biased policing practices doesn’t keep minorities safe from officers who stop people just because of the color of their skin, migrant farmworkers and human rights groups told lawmakers on Thursday.

The state needs to strengthen Act 134, the bias-free policing law, because some agencies aren’t complying with state statute, they said. Police should also collect more data and provide officers with better training, the advocates said.

Testimony about bias-free policing, taken over two mornings last week, grew tense, as discussion focused on whether state and local police have a duty to enforce federal immigration laws.

“It’s not fair that police (are) doing the job of the border patrol,” said Enrique Jimenez, a migrant farmworker.

“The job of the police is to keep our community safe,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Troopers said their goal is to ensure that no one is afraid to report a crime. But immigration, within the realm of bias-free policing, remains a polarizing issue in the state police force.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are frustrated that Vermont lacks central oversight over all law enforcement agencies. State officials, for example, do not know how many local police departments are in Vermont.

Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chair of House Judiciary, asked: “Is there anybody that can tell me: Has every law enforcement department in the state of Vermont adopted the (bias-free policing) policy that we asked to have in place?”

Lippert’s committee has made it clear it wants to improve Act 134 and intends to do so this session. The committee has been held up by a study of statewide police data that was supposed to be completed in 2012.

Lippert said he will ask for an exemption from the March 14 crossover deadline so his committee can work on legislation this session.

To illustrate what life is like for migrant farmworkers in Vermont, Jimenez, of Sheldon, told the committee about his experience. One night he was detained by federal immigration officials after his boss was pulled over by deputies from the Franklin County Sheriff for a burnt-out tail light.

The officer asked Jimenez if he had a visa and detained him when he said no, he said. They searched his house and arrested two others. Three undocumented workers from that incident are in the process of being deported.

Jimenez said people break into workers’ houses and steal cash because the thieves know they don’t have bank accounts and won’t report the crime to police for fear of deportation.

Migrant Justice, the organization on whose behalf Jimenez testified, met with the Franklin County Sheriff and ask him to change his policy but so far has seen no change, Jimenez said.

A change in the law should create oversight for departments that don’t have a policy, or have a weak policy, Jimenez said.

“A lot of communities, not just the migrant community, will feel much safer in public,” he said.

Brendan O'Neill, Migrant Justice. Photo by Laura Krantz
Brendan O’Neill, Migrant Justice. Photo by Laura Krantz

The state board that set the standard for bias-free policing policies across the state set the bar too low, according to Brendan O’Neill of Migrant Justice. For example, the rules do not set guidelines for when it is proper to inquire about the immigration status of an individual, he said.

He asked that the committee require stronger policies across the state and clearly define the consequences for not having a policy, proper training or race data collection.

“Our concern is that there be action on this year,” O’Neill said.

Sheriff Robert Norris Friday did not return a call for comment. He told the Associated Press his office is in the process of updating their 2003 anti-bias policy.

The committee also heard from Abel Luna, a campaign coordinator at Migrant Justice, who said he distrusts law enforcement agencies because of stories like Jimenez’s.

“I fear that I’m going to be targeted based on my color and my race,” said Luna.

Rep. Andy Donaghy, R-Poultney, asked Luna whether he is a U.S. citizen. Luna said he is a citizen and was born in the United States.

Donaghy also asked how Migrant Justice is funded. Luna declined to answer.

“I don’t view that that question is very relevant to what we are trying to address. We’re talking about amending a law,” he said.

Donaghy asked how many undocumented farmworkers there are in Vermont. Luna said there are approximately 1,500 migrant workers, documented and undocumented.

“They’re members of community of Vermont, working for Vermont,” Luna said.

Donaghy pressed for a specific number of undocumented workers, but Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said the question was out of line.

The bias-free policing policy for the Vermont State Police and a model policy from the Vermont Attorney General’s office are considered to be stronger than the state guidelines, which are set by the Law Enforcement Advisory Board.

State Police Colonel Thomas L’Esperance said his agency wants to ensure people do not fear calling police when they are a victim or witness of a crime.

But the colonel said immigration-related issues in the context of bias-free policing are controversial within the agency and a key part of what state police struggled with in developing their policy.

“It’s the most polarizing issue in law enforcement right now,” L’Esperance said.

The colonel said he has no control over troopers when they are off duty, but has not heard specific examples of troopers who report individuals to immigration officials after work.

“At the end of the day, the trooper is an American citizen, they go off duty at 5 p.m.,” L’Esperance said.

Lippert asked whether a trooper, making a roadside stop, would inquire of other passengers in the car, absent probable cause, about their immigration status.

“Not necessarily,” L’Esperance said.

Along the border, state police work with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal authorities and ask more questions at traffic stops than they would in other parts of the state, the colonel said.

A study of statewide state police data in 2009 found non-white people are more likely to receive a ticket, he said. People of color were also more likely to be searched.

Troopers understand the policy and the reasons for it, he said. Training is the best way to help police overcome racial bias, in his view.

“Spending money on training is worth its weight in gold,” L’Esperance said.

Tom L'Esperance, Vermont State Police. Photo by Laura Krantz
Tom L’Esperance, Vermont State Police. Photo by Laura Krantz

When police go after out-of-state drug dealers, minority stereotypes often come into play, he said.

“It’s ingrained in Vermont culture. When that term is used, the ‘out-of-state drug dealer,’ there’s a certain picture that’s painted,” he said.

The committee also heard from the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Police need better training to identify subconscious bias, said Karen Richards, executive director of the Human Rights Commission.

“A lot of people don’t even understand when they’re being biased,” she said.

Richards suggested that agencies adopt the state police or attorney general policy, because they are stronger than the current model policy.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, supported the suggestions of Migrant Justice and the Human Rights Commission.

He echoed Lippert’s frustration that there is no single point of contact with all law enforcement agencies in Vermont.

Gilbert asked the committee to investigate whether any Vermont agencies receive any goods, funds or services from any other agencies connected to immigration.

Off-duty officers who conduct investigations could be a liability for the state, he said.

“I’m almost sure there are going to be lawsuits eventually around this issue unless the perception is not cleared up that people of Hispanic origin can’t go to police,” he said. “We have essentially asked people to come from a different country to do work that none of us wants to do to maintain an industry that we all think is critical to the economic vitality of this state and then we make them fearful and actually make them targets of theft and burg because they’re afraid of going to the police and reporting the crimes.”

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  • Ethan Rogers

    “It’s not fair that police (are) doing the job of border patrol,” said Jimenez. “The job of the police is to keep our community safe,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

    I’m pleased the police, whose primary function in society is to enforce the laws, are doing what the Border Patrol won’t.

    • Paula Schramm

      Ethan Rogers,
      I don’t think you understand the big picture here.
      The Border Patrol is certainly doing their job. There are a great number of Border Patrol here in Franklin County where Enrique Jimenez lives and works, and they stay very busy, patrolling all the time. They were the ones the Deputy Sheriff called, and they were the ones that showed up, about 6 cars worth, at the residence & went in without permission or search warrant and detained 2 more workers living there who were also doing nothing wrong. All 3 workers had lived & worked productively here for years, as have many others on a majority of dairy farms here. Our local economy actually depends on them.
      It was the Deputy who chose to ask for immigration papers from Enrique, who was simply in his boss’s car getting a ride home from his shift in the barn. He was in work clothes and dirty boots: it was pretty obvious what the situation was, and he was doing nothing wrong. The stop was for a tail light – the driver presented the proper papers.
      The Sheriff’s Dept. is not paid for doing immigration work. That is what we pay the Dept. of Immigration & the Border Patrol to do. All the time the Sheriff’s Dept. spends on immigration matters, they are not doing the work us taxpayers actually pay them for : enforcing the local law, building trust and helping to keep our community safe. If they make a part of the local community fear them, then victims or witnesses to crime will not call on them, and our communities will not be as safe. We now have a bias-free policing policy as law, used successfully by the State Police, that addresses this very real problem. We need to have all our police departments following the law better for the safety of our communities.
      Col. L’Esperance actually said that in any similar situation a state trooper is trained to NOT ask for immigration status, if there is no reason to suspect any crime happening. To further clarify, not having immigration papers is a civil rather than a criminal offense, and is what we pay the federal officers to handle.

      • Jamie Carter

        “The Sheriff’s Dept. is not paid for doing immigration work. ”

        Actually Paula it is. The Sheriff’s Dept is paid to enforce the law… all laws. It’s that simple. The farmer was pulled over for a legal violation. He asked questions that he should ask. Enrique has kept quiet he may have a valid complaint but an officer can ask, and he Enrique admitted he was in violation of the law.

        These people are here illegally, it pretty simple. If a law enforcement officers suspects someone is not here illegally they absolutely should go and talk with them and ascertain if that is or isn’t case… because they are law “Enforcement” officers.

  • I’m happy to see the police are doing their jobs enforcing immigration laws. I am sure the police in Mexico do their job when an American is living there illegally. No politician can waive their hand and change the existing immigration laws, as Shumlin did. I think the law is the law and should be enforced. Illegal is illegal, there is a clear cut path to citizenship in this country that is legal, it is not “broken” as some in our Federal Government say, jobs or no jobs.

    • Paula Schramm

      Again, Ray Giroux, enforcing immigration laws is not the job of the police. It is the job of the Dept. of Immigration and the Border Patrol.

  • Jim Barrett

    Migrant farm workers are complaining while we know it is illegal for them to be here in the first place, now that takes some brass! Why are we not enforcing the laws of the land? Who in Montpelier is demanding the police look the other way when it comes to Mexicans working here illegally. Farmers are making huge sums for the milk produced while we sit back and support slavery.

    • Paula Schramm

      Our immigration laws badly need changing at the Federal level. Everyone acknowledges that, and we have been waiting many years for that to happen. Right the Congress is so close, but is being stonewalled by the Republican leadership of the House, for internal political reasons. Meanwhile there is a very good fix to our need for migrant dairy farm workers – the temporary work visa for year-round workers – our VT delegation has written this, along with lawmakers from New York & other dairy & farm states.
      The question is, do we unnecessarily harass the workers here who are doing needed work & helping our local economy, until such time as the national politics improve enough to solve this situation ? Or do we try to find the best way to deal with it & to keep our communities safe meanwhile ?

      • The Republicans in the House know what the Law is, they are working on changing existing immigration laws, the Democrats want to just waive their hand and say, “you’re all legal” This is being done for a new Democratic voting block. Yes, “come to America, get free food, rent, education and healthcare. Vote for Democrats, we’ll take care of you”.

        Many people are still coming to our country thru the legal immigration system that is in place. These legal immigrants do not get a “free” drivers license, like Shumlin gives to the illegals, they have to speak English, pay the fees and pass the test. Our immigration system is not “broken” it is just that the Democrats want a new voting block.

        Once someone goes thru the proper immigration process it opens up much more opportunity than just farming and service jobs, they can actually earn a living wage.

        So, if the democrats could have their way and wave their hand and say, “you’re all legal” what kind of a can of worms will that open? Our country would fill up with “low paid” individuals at a time when there are not enough jobs for Americans. Where will that scenario lead?

        • Paula Schramm

          Ray Giroux – Nobody is “waving their hands, saying you’re legal”, Democrat or Republican. Many states ( VT too ) have a temporary work visa for seasonal migrant workers so they can be documented while they are here working. The problem with dairy workers is that they are needed throughout the year. Having a temporary work visa for 3 years with one renewal possible would address that problem & should be passed. These workers are meeting a need locally that is not being met by VT workers. Hired farm help just is no longer looked at as a career path by Vermonters unless they have a farm in the family ! But agricultural workers from Mexico will never be given a visa even if they wait ten years. That’s the reality. We need this sensible farm worker visa, and it will be passed if immigration reform is passed.
          No one is giving anyone a “free” driver’s license either – where’d you get that idea ? ….in Vermont and in many other states there is a license people can get by proving their identity, and they have to pay the fees and pass the test. Period.

      • John Dillinger

        So following this logic, State and Local Law Enforcement should not contact Federal authorities when they discover a violation of federal law and vice versa? When the state calls the federal authorities to seize a weapon of soneone convicted of domestic violence (because the VT has to law on the books that would allow local or state police to do so) the Feds should ignore it because it’s not their law? Local police should not arrest on a federal warrant? Violations of law are violations of law. Agencies work together to keep people safe. Until the law changes officers are duty bound report violations that they discover. As far as the warrants and illegal searches, I suggest that research of case law may be in order before you attack the justification for the search. But why bother with facts or laws when the name of the agency isn’t even correct. Cheers.

        • Paula Schramm

          No one is saying that someone convicted of a violent crime should not be dealt with, by what ever law enforcement officer is available, and with everyone cooperating. Border Patrol and local police/sheriff’s dept.’s cooperate with each other all the time.

          Just saying what State Troopers officers and Sheriff Dept. officials have said : it is not the job of local law enforcement to go around checking law-abiding people’s immigration status in a random way, for no particular reason. That behavior is actually counter-productive and leads to unintended harm to the community when victims or witnesses to crime cannot trust the police enough to call them for help.

          • Jamie Carter

            Enrique wasn’t a law abiding citizen? Checking his status wasn’t random?

  • Paul Lorenzini

    Illegal immigration is ILLEGAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Why the heck are we listening to these people?

    • Paula Schramm

      We are listening because everyone trying to deal with these problems has a valid point of view, if you really want to find the solutions that create the most good for everyone, that is.
      I often wonder why Border Patrol or police just don’t go around barging into everyone’s medium to large dairy farm in Vermont, and ask everyone there for their immigration status. Then they could deport all who are not documented – and you and everyone “voicing their support for the law” ( choosing which laws they like, apparently ) would be happy, no ? Problem solved !

  • I would much rather protect the hard working folks who may (or may not) be without valid visas as opposed to the predators who threaten and steal from these hard working folks.

    • Paul Lorenzini

      I agree, however if they are here illegally and we welcome and protect them then what does that say about our respect for our own laws? How can we expect respect for any laws when we condone, and even reward breaking them?
      If they have a valid visa, one they did not buy with their ability to utilize human capital, in the form of cheap labor, then by all means help them.

      • Paul, it says we know how to handle priorities and, more importantly, be moral human beings.

        I would argue that forcing hard working, honest people into the shadows where they can’t help protect themselves – and society (that’s you and me) – from violent people and thieves is immoral and places emphasis on the wrong laws.

        One could certainly argue that there are times where engaging in an illegal activity brings a person knowingly into contact with the wrong types of folks – I don’t believe this is not one of those. If the worst a person has done is enter this country to earn a living without required paperwork, that person should not be treated as a criminal.

        As I said – it’s about morals and priorities.

  • Matt Taylor

    Sounds like criminals (being here illegally) are complaining that the police holding them accountable and some people are saying how dare they…start reading the laws and leaving absurd personal opinions out of it. Asking for bias free policing is merely asking for the police to shut their eyes and not hold criminals accountable…..special interest groups are multiplying in Montpelier 10 fold.

    I grew up and lived in Vermont my entire life and recently moved out of state due to an increasing number of people lacking common sense (politicians in Montpelier certainly included). Sworn law enforcement officers calling immigration and border patrol when they feel someone is here illegally is part of their job… up holding the law

    • Paula Schramm

      Matt Taylor – People without proper documention are not criminals, anymore than anyone else who has committed a civil offense. It was the President of the VT State Sheriff’s Dept. that told me he would rather not see county deputies spending their time dealing with immigration issues when they needed to be doing the things they were paid to do…that there is a Dept. paid by federal tax dollars whose job that is…and those federal dollars aren’t paying for local law enforcement : our towns are paying for that, and they can’t even afford to have anything like full-time coverage ( not in my county, anyway.)
      If you have read the comments, you will see that there is a law about bias-free policing policies that also needs to be upheld. This not an absurd law, but an important public safety and human rights measure. People who are American citizens testified before the committee about being profiled & harassed for no reason other than their appearance ( i.e. skin color ). This is not “common sense” and does not build trust in a community or in law enforcement. This is not what Vermont is about.

      • Matt Taylor

        They might not be “criminals” by your definition but they have broken the law whether is be civil or criminal. The law is the law…

        The bias free policing is another way to tie the hands of law enforcement. Pretty soon, it will be law for police officers to ONLY pull over a equal percentage of caucasians, african americans and hispanics or they will be charged with a crime. When does these “special interest” laws end (drivers licenses for illegal immigrants is one such law) and when does common sense start.

        I don’t agreed with racial profiling, however asking for everyones identifical in a vehicle whether they be caucasian, african american, hispanic or smurfs shouldn’t cause a public outcry. I have been in a vehicle before and the officer asked for everyones identification, we complied and thought nothing of it.

  • To the men who are voicing their support for the law on this thread, and the officers who are enforcing it: Thank you, I appreciate your efforts. I think it is likely that I will be protected, in spite of all, from those who seem overly concerned with avoiding the police.

    But it’s not Robert Frost’s Vermont any more, is it?

    “Good fences make good neighbors.”

  • David Dempsey

    Those pesky police officers trying to enforce the law that some people don’t like. Shame on them. The legislature could make things a lot easier for law enforcement if they would make the yet unwritten Dairy Farmers Exempt statute and make it applicable to all federal and state laws.

    Examples:
    Employers must pay all employees the mandated minimum wage. Dairy Farmers exempt.

    Employers must pay fica tax on all wages paid to employees. Dairy Farmers exempt.

    The proposed law to make employers give employees sick days must include the wording, Dairy farmers exempt.

  • Alex Prolman

    Thank you, Paula Schramm, for trying to have a sound conversation on this comment board of vitriol, and thank you to the advocates and lawmakers that are trying to do this good work. This country is still profoundly racist, and needs a lot of help.

  • Eric Bye

    People who live and work in the US without proper documentation have violated civil, not criminal code. This violation pales when we consider the reasons why these people have endured hardships and risked even their lives to come here:
    1) There is no path open to them to enter the country legally and work.
    2) Their prospects for employment, security, and meaningful work at home are nil.
    3) Poverty, drug wars, and lack of educational opportunity for children at home make it worth the risks to come here.

    Most of these people would immigrate legally if they could. I believe that they perform a necessary function and that they contribute to our labor force and economy. They deserve equal consideration under our laws, respect, and freedom of movement.