Study: Blacks, Hispanics face more enforcement in traffic stops

Stephanie Seguino

Professor Stephanie Seguino presents a report Monday at the University of Vermont on a study of racial disparities in traffic stops in Vermont. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be ticketed, searched and arrested than white drivers in Vermont, according to a study of traffic stop data released Monday.

The analysis, completed by University of Vermont researcher Stephanie Seguino and Cornell University’s Nancy Brooks, included data from 29 municipal, county and state law enforcement agencies in Vermont for 2015. It’s the first statewide study of racial disparities in traffic stops.

Black and Hispanic drivers in Vermont experience “significant disparities in treatment” by police compared with white and Asian drivers, Seguino said in a presentation at UVM.

Black drivers are nearly four times as likely to be searched than white drivers after a traffic stop and are arrested at a rate nearly twice that of white drivers, according to the study.

Hispanic and black drivers are more likely to get a ticket if they are stopped by police than Asian and white drivers, according to the report.

Statewide, police search black drivers after a stop at a rate of 3.6 percent, nearly four times the rate for white drivers. Hispanic drivers are searched nearly three times as frequently as white drivers, and Asian drivers are searched less often than whites.

However, though they are searched more often, black and Hispanic drivers are less likely to be found to be carrying contraband than white or Asian drivers, according to the report.

Officers record the race of the driver in any traffic stop based on their own perception.

Seguino said the data is a “fundamental tool” for law enforcement agencies. She said researchers aimed to use a simple methodology to allow police agencies to monitor their data over time.

“I liken this to going to the doctor,” Seguino said. “It is a diagnostic tool that can be used relatively easily to assess performance.”

She urged regular analysis of traffic stop data going forward.

“The real issue here is that as a country we have a problem of racial disparities,” Seguino said. “The question is not do we have them or not. Are we making progress going forward?”

Seguino said the data likely show that bias is at play in policing in Vermont.

“There may be some explanation for some of the disparities, but in large part my sense is that a good deal of these disparities is due to implicit bias,” Seguino said.

Ingrid Jonas

Capt. Ingrid Jonas of the Vermont State Police. Photo courtesy of VSP

Capt. Ingrid Jonas of the Vermont State Police raised some concern about the integrity of the data used in the analysis.

Some of the 2015 data was incorrectly coded to include tickets that came out of an officer response to an emergency call or a crash, rather than a stop at the discretion of the officer. She said the state police agency has worked to improve data collection methods to ensure information is more accurate.

“We all want the numbers to tell us a story that we can truly take meaning from,” said Jonas, the agency’s director of fair and impartial policing and community affairs.

She also voiced concerns about the quality of the data from other law enforcement agencies in the state. One important step for police across Vermont is to ensure officers are better trained in recording data, she said.

Seguino said that although there may be some problems with the data used in the analysis, she does not expect that to have a significant impact on the disparities found.

“The disparities are so large my guess is they are not going to go away with any improvements in classification,” Seguino said.

Karen Gennette, of the Crime Research Group, said the report brought the issue of racial disparities in policing “to the forefront.”

However, she said she believes it is important to distinguish between disparities and bias.

“Bias can be a reason for the disparities in the data, but there are also other reasons for disparities in the data,” she said.

For example, she said the report didn’t include commuting population and resident analysis. Burlington has thousands of people commuting in, she said. “That is going to impact the traffic stops that they have in their community,” she said.

Lia Ernst, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said the revelations in the data are not new.

“These data just show what black and brown Vermonters have long known from years of experience. Biased policing in Vermont is real, it’s pervasive throughout the state, and it’s getting worse over time,” Ernst said.

“It’s long past time for agencies to deny that this problem exists, and now the question is what are we going to do about it,” she said.

Ernst said that data collection and training for police officers about implicit bias is just the first step in tackling the problem. A critical next step is ensuring that officers are held accountable and disciplined when they are found to be discriminating.

She urged agencies to collect data at the level of individual officers.

TJ Donovan

Attorney General TJ Donovan. File photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

Attorney General TJ Donovan hailed the report as “a positive step forward.”

“It’s fine to say that we have a problem, but now we can measure against that to say how are we doing on an annual basis,” Donovan said.

Donovan said he does not have concerns about the integrity of the data used in the analysis.

“It is about lowering those numbers,” he said. “It’s about making sure that people are treated fairly and feel that they’re being treated fairly.”

He said he’ll work with the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council and with law enforcement agencies where resources may be scarce to improve data collection.

Both Ernst and Donovan said they liked a recommendation Seguino made to hold brief but frequent trainings in implicit bias for officers, a model that they said could be both more practical and more effective.

Mark Hughes, of the racial justice organization Justice For All, noted that traffic stop data is still not available from dozens of Vermont law enforcement agencies, and he called for improved collection and access to that information.

He said raw data from police should be available to the public and updated often.

Hughes said the data from police tell just part of the story and that more data should be collected throughout the criminal justice system.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • What would be the results if we sliced and diced all of the data by age rather then race? Would we interpret it as targeting a certain age group? That would be my question.
    Or possibly by the type of car being driven when the stop is made ?
    One thing is for certain , figures lie and liars figure. Any group of numbers or statistics can be analyzed and differing results can be produced.
    I am happy TJ wants everyone to “feel” they are being treated fairly but that’s not the way things happen in life.

    • Doug Hoffer

      Are you suggesting the author’s lied? If so, back it up. And are you really suggesting that the difference between the experience of people of color and White people in our society is the equivalent of the experience of people who drive Fords rather than Chevys?

      • Todd Morris

        Doug you know he wasn’t equating ethnicity to a model of car. I believe the author was trying to express that you need to look at statistics with a wary eye because they can so easily mislead. You surely would acknowledge that. In this particular instance many questions arise as to how to look at the data to interpret the true meaning or cause for the discrepancies in population groups. I feel your response is part and parcel for our societies devolving into a food fight. Rather than acknowledging that there are unanswered questions you choose to become hostile toward Mr Baker.

      • Jim Candon

        Another specious “study” by the liberal left to support their usual assumptions. Notice that senior Vt police officials will be unwilling to push back on this. For them to explain, correct, or otherwise pushback would be, in this politically correct state, an opening to be labeled as “racist”. Sadly therefore we will see no pushback coming from them.

      • Would you agree any statistical analysis can be interpreted different ways? Thus the comment “figures lie and liars figure”.
        A State Audit can find $1.8 million in over-payments and have two completely different opinions of the audits outcome.
        1 – We’re wasting taxpayers money,
        or
        2 – That’s such a small % of our budget it doesn’t matter

        Researcher Ms Seguino is convincing…”My sense is”, “my guess”, “Data likely shows”, “May be some problem with the data”. Perhaps that’s all one needs as absolute fact, but as in all science, it should be looked at with skeptical eyes.
        I don’t recall “suggesting that the difference between the experience of people of color and White people in our society”: I’m questioning the methodology of the study since the raw data isn’t available to review.

        – Are more stops made in sports car, sedans, SUV’s
        – Are the age groups most stopped 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, or 30+.
        – How are the stops broken down by in and out of state drivers.

    • Matt Miller

      How about out-of-state vs VT residents? I’d tend to think that local residents (who are 99% white) would tend to be given warnings at a higher rate than those with out-of-state plates

  • Dave Bellini

    Not enough data to make conclusions. Is the study saying that stops, arrests and searches are based on the race of the driver and the police are completely unaware of their prejudices? What about the race of police officers? Do black and hispanic officers have the same or different bias? What about the selection of stats and facts that are used and the stats that are not used? No one dare challenge any of this for fear of being called racist.

  • David R. Black

    As a poor speller, retired engineer, mechanic and a DIY person I have relied on data interpretation to assist me in my endeavors with the need to understand how things work and happen. Interpretation is a key element here. 10 different people can have 10 different results. Don’t focus on any one outcome, but to widdle it down to the point where an answer is best represented. Add or take away a possible conclusion can result in numerous answers. That being said.Take away “racial disparities” and what do you have? Answer: Yes! other answers and more questions, depending on who is searching. My question still remains: Why do Blacks, Hispanics face more enforcement in traffic stops?

  • Tom Grout

    How about the time of the day these stops were made. fast forward the info being most of these stops were at 10-11am wouldn’t that indicate a non worker member of the public?

    • Does it occur to you that people work hours that don’t include 10-11 am? Shift work and service sector jobs are still jobs even if they are not in banking hours.

      • Tom Grout

        Perhaps but not the lions share of jobs.

      • Mark Trigo

        Does it occur to you that the vast majority of workers work during 10-11 am? Somehow that point seemed to be lost on you.

    • Richard M Roderick

      No it would not indicate a non worker member of the public. They may be on vacation, on Sick Leave on the way to a medical appointment, may be a salesperson, may be doing volunteer driving for the senior center, maybe be going to a job interview. My point is there are many reasons people may not be “at work” at 10 AM Let’s not forget about shift work too.

  • Ron Fastner

    Reporting #1, who funded the study????

    Police officers don’t pull vehicles over because of race. I would say a high percentage of the time, the driver race is not witnessed by the officer. Spending 3 minutes reading this study, a logical person could conclude that for the study to be worth anything the data would need to measure conditions of the stop. How many at night, how many from trailing only, how many from blatant violations that remove race from the equation. All these questions are related to the story. If Officer Joe Smith is following a vehicle at night, how can he see the race of the driver? He needs a reason to pull the vehicle over. Then he needs another reason to search.

    Maybe a better conclusion to the study is Blacks and Hispanics are breaking the law more often!!!!

    • Neil Johnson

      Perhaps they can’t afford a car in good repair? That would lead to more stops, bad mufflers, out of date inspection stickers, out of date registration, etc…..

      The only thing this study might prove is we are biased towards pulling men over.

  • Bill Cheney

    The study doesn’t give the reasons why the traffic stop resulted in a search. Is the study implying that because your black you automatically get searched and the officer had no reason to?

  • Christopher Daniels

    Look at the three of you trying to find reasons not to believe the results of the study. It just can’t possibly be true. The stats are wrong. They’ve looked at the wrong data. They didn’t ask the right questions. Good grief.

    This data is completely unsurprising. Don Keeler, Addison County Sheriff, has publicly stated that he views black drivers with suspicion, especially those driving cars with out-of-state plates. He’s publicly stated that he is watchful of houses where black men play basketball outside. I can’t imagine that his way of thinking is unique in law enforcement.

    • Pam Ladds

      It isn’t it fascinating! Comment after comment, all trying to weasel out of the conclusion that the playing field is not level. Not just here in VT where we like to consider we are above bias, conscious or otherwise. But the reality is that we do have biases. Several people from this study were interviewed on VPR yesterday. The discussion was a good one – law enforcement representatives were not defensive, they were not denying the information presented. They seemed supportive and were interested in making changes. The evidence is pretty overwhelming and we would be smart to recognize it. And learn from it.

      • Ron Fastner

        What is fascinating is the amount of people in this country who refuse to use logic and think from themselves. This was a “study”. If that is the case, the questions being asked are relevant. Use your brain!!!

      • Neil Johnson

        And the one thing that is totally ignored is the sexist nature? What say you about that? Are cops more sexist than racist? Scientists don’t mind being questioned, they are open to it, while this isn’t science per se, isn’t it interesting that it’s not open to questioning. Most people are not racist, perhaps that’s why, despite what we are told, most people live in harmony with each other.

  • Jamie Carter

    I very much am against using race as a justification for anything. And as a reason to stop and search one is at the top of that list. That said, without delving into the data in detail I would note this… no cop can search a car without reasonable suspicion. Now if we take into account the low minority population numbers in the state, hypothetically, 50,000 caucasions could be stopped and 500 were searched because they were acting suspiciously. And, 500 african americans could have been stopped with 12 of them acting suspiciously and we would end up with these kinds of figures.

    Studies of this sort are important, and citing statistics make a good story, but they aren’t really enough to draw any conclusions on, and certainly not enough to warrant changing policies just yet. More data over an extended period of time and a careful analysis are required for that. That said, it never hurts to remind law enforcement to be cognizant of potential bias.

  • Paul Coates

    What about probable cause…..for the initial stop and for the searches? Too many other factors are omitted to consider this valid. The assumption is that race is the only influence in play here.

  • Tom Heeter

    I live in Vergennes, and I spoke with our chief of police about this subject. He told me that nearly all traffic stops are based on three criteria: speeding, defective equipment and failure to yield right-of-way.

    Speeding is usually detected by the use of radar, and is usually detected when the vehicle is too far away to determine any physical attributes of the driver. Those attributes are not determined until the vehicle has been pulled over, so race or nationality is not the reason for the stop.

    Defective equipment stops are not racially motivated since the officer seldom sees the driver until he or she is stopped. Also, disregarding a stop sign or red light causes all drivers to be stopped by the police when those acts are observed. Again, race and nationality wouldn’t be the motivation for the traffic stop.

    • Phil Greenleaf

      You very conveniently ignore the fact that officers can mark and trail a car with “defective equipment”, or having failed to yield, while gathering profile data from the plate number. This information then allows context into the potential stop – including priors, race, nationality, etc. None of this absolutely defines a biased stop but you too easily ignored the background factor of data (not to mention a whole host of data most of the public is not even aware of). Denial of statistics by other commenters on this article, combined with these somewhat shallow observations combine to describe the general trend of conservative factual obfuscation.

  • Kim Hebert

    All we have to do is post signs at the city limits of all Vermont towns. “WARNING DUMB ASS YOUR ARE ABOUT TO ENTER A TOWN 99% WHITE POLICED BY MOSTLY WHITE OFFICERS. IF YOU ARE BLACK OR BROWN, YOU HAVE OUT OF STATE PLATES, YOUR VEHICLE IS IN DISREPAIR AND YOU DRIVE LIKE A DRUNK YOU WILL BE STOPPED AND SEARCHED BECAUSE YOU STICK OUT LIKE A SORE THUMB. HAVE A NICE DAY”

  • Neil Johnson

    It is an interesting report and incomplete. What it does show, by huge effect is stops are sexist but their is not out cry. What was the ratio of men to women being pulled over and stopped? It makes all other things pale in comparison.

    What it doesn’t discuss is out of state vs. instate stops. We are dealing with very small numbers which can make % meaningless.

  • Neil Johnson

    According to this study, the Middlebury police are far more sexist than racist…

    ” in Middlebury, among Black drivers stopped, 88% are male, while among White drivers stopped, 62% are male. ”

    So our police departments are way more sexist than racist?

  • Nathan Denny

    What is odd to me is that some Vermont police officers don’t seem to have realized that the people they regard as threats to public safety will, if they are indeed engaged in criminal enterprises, invent methods of moving contraband that don’t attract suspicion or searches. Commerce, legal or illegal, is amazingly adaptive. Or if they have realized it, are these disproportionate searches done as a sort of warning? While I have sympathy for the hard task law enforcement officers face, it seems clear to me that they must devise other methods of detection. This is too much akin to NYC’s unconstitutional stop and frisk policies.

  • Rob Bast

    Ok, so this is the very first attempt to do such a study in Vermont. Given the questions being considered, it cannot be expected to be the last. So, setting aside any cynicism expressed in the comments, the questions raised become guides to a better second effort : better organization, better presentation, and better understanding become iterative goals. In order to do this, the data collection questions might be reviewed interactively with the PD’s in the survey. Did they get useful information from this? Did it adequately take into account their existing knowledge of the members of the community they are charged with safeguarding? Things like that could be important given the demographics.

    Of particular importance is the apparent buy-in by many Vermont PDs. They want the feed back and outside perspective, for which they deserve commendation. It will be interesting to see version 2 of this.

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