Crime and Justice

UVM researchers show little progress in traffic stop disparities

Vermont State Police
A new study looks at racial disparities in traffic stops and searches by several of the largest police agencies in Vermont, including the Vermont State Police. State police photo

New traffic stop studies of data from several of the largest police agencies around Vermont reveals Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be searched and less likely to have contraband than white drivers.

The authors of the reports say the latest data shows that while anti-policing bias training may have led to some modest improvements since an earlier study three years ago, it has not resulted in major changes to police behavior and highlights the challenge ahead.

“Racial bias in the United States is systemic, and negative stereotypes about people of color are deeply rooted,” Stephanie Seguino, a University of Vermont professor, said Monday in announcing the latest findings. 

“Without sustained attention and commitment,” she added, “the problem is very difficult to eradicate.” 

Seguino, Cornell University’s Nancy Brooks, and data analyst Pat Autilio, looked at data from eight police departments in the state, following up on a separate statewide study by the researchers from 2017 on police traffic stops.

The earlier study, using 2015 data, found Black drivers were four times more likely to be searched than white drivers, and Hispanic drivers were three times more likely to be searched than white drivers.

And while searched at a higher rate, that 2017 report stated, both Black and Hispanic drivers were less likely to be found with contraband than white drivers.

[Explore traffic stop data for 8 Vermont police departments.]

The new studies of some of the biggest local law enforcement agencies in the state as well as Vermont State Police were released Monday, looking at four more years of data, up to and including 2019. 

Seguino, in an interview, said since different measures are used in the reviews, it is difficult to rank law enforcement agencies from best to worst when it comes to racial disparities in traffic stops.  

“What we did find is that for some towns there was pretty consistent evidence that things are getting worse or staying the same,” Seguino said. 

She did point to two agencies, Vermont State Police and the South Burlington Police Department, as making more progress than others. 

Seguino said for state police there has been a “consistent” decrease, with an “uptick” in certain categories in 2019. 

For example, while overall searches of drivers went down last year, the report stated, Black drivers were searched more than four times as white drivers.

Also, the “hit” rate, or the percent of time finding contraband during a search, was higher in 2019 for white drivers, at 76.4%, than Black drivers, at 71.4%.

“The disparities are still there and they are frustrating,” Capt. Garry Scott, the state police’s Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs director, said Monday. “The arrest and the search and finding are still the trends we are not happy with in any way.” 

The data from some other law enforcement agencies showed the need for even more improvement, Seguino said. 

For example, according to the reports released Monday, from 2015 to 2019, the number of traffic stops in Bennington increased about 65%.

“The data indicate Black drivers were overstopped by between 55% to 236%, depending on the measure of the driving population used,” the report stated. “Hispanics were overstopped by 93% relative to their estimated share of the driving population.”

Also, Black drivers are searched at a rate nearly three times greater than the rate white drivers are searched.

Earlier this year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police raised the issue of traffic stops in Bennington as it concluded that the law enforcement agency portrays a “warrior mentality,” leading to mistrust in the community.

That organization was contracted by the town to conduct a review of the department following the resignation of former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington and complaints that the department did not properly investigate reports of racial harassment she was subjected to. 

The IACP report highlighted the Bennington Police Department’s aggressiveness when it comes to traffic enforcement. 

“An apparent focus on traffic stops by BPD is a source of fear for many community members who feel and understand that routine traffic stops have historically been used as methods of intimidation toward racial minorities,” that report stated. 

“A common theme among the project team’s interactions with community groups is that certain groups within the community,” the IACP report added, “are more likely to feel profiled by police based on race or socioeconomic demographics.”

In addition, Seguino said Monday, even properly providing the data has been a problem for the Bennington Police Department. 

“They have very poor data,” Seguino said. “The amount of missing data on drivers is actually quite great.” 

The race of the driver was omitted in 3.3% of the traffic stops, or 806 stops, according to the report. That number has also increased over time so by 2019, 4.9% of traffic reports failed to record a driver's race.     

“This is concerning, since the goal of the legislation to require traffic stop data collection was precisely to identify racial disparities," the report stated.

Under a 2014 law, police departments are required to provide the data to the state. But, many law enforcement agencies have failed to do so.

There was also concern over missing traffic stop information from the Rutland Police Department, with the review released Monday stating that the missing data does not appear to be random. 

Specifically, according to the report, for the 457 stops where race of the driver is not known, less than 1% of those stops had any other missing information about the stop. 

“Why would an officer record all other information on the stop but fail to record the race, a field that is legally required,” the report stated. 

Also in Rutland, the report found that Black and Hispanic drivers were stopped at a higher rate than the estimated driver population. 

Black drivers, according to the report, were overstopped by between 79% to 151%, depending on the measure of driving population used. Hispanic drivers, the report stated, were overstopped by 36% relative to their estimated share of the driving population. 

In addition, according to the report, Black drivers in Rutland were about 4.7 times more likely to be searched after a stop than white drivers. 

Hispanics drivers were searched at a rate 38% higher than that of white drivers in Rutland. Despite the higher search rates, the report stated, Black and Hispanic drivers were less likely to be found with contraband than white drivers.

Both Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette and Rutland City Police Brian Kilcullen said Monday they needed more time to look over the reports before commenting.

Kilcullen did say of the report on his department, “We’ll be reviewing it and taking what we can take from it and improve.” 

Mia Schultz, a community organizer in Bennington who works for several organizations, including Vermont’s NAACP, said Monday that she wasn’t surprised by the numbers.

“It’s not good,” she said of the Bennington results. “It verifies the lived experience, it just confirms we need aggressive and immediate change right now.” 

Schultz added, “And it needs to happen now. There is real urgency. There are real human beings behind every number.” 

Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland Area chapter of the NAACP, said Monday that the studies of the police departments showed "pretty significant" racial disparities. 

"My hope is that law enforcement agencies see this as an awakening, and embrace it, rather than fight it, and figure out what's going on here, why does this exist," Moore said. "They need to work with the community to address it rather than doing it internally."

She also talked about the need to properly collect data.

"Who is digging in their heels about acknowledging bias? It's Bennington and it's Rutland," she said, referring to two of the departments who were called out in the reports for failing to gather and provide the proper information. 

In addition to Vermont State Police, and the Bennington and Rutland police departments, studies were also conducted of local law enforcement agencies in Brattleboro, Burlington, Cochester, South Burlington, and Williston.

Among the findings in those other five department:

— Brattleboro, from 2015 to 2019, the number of traffic stops has fallen about 8.5%. However, stops of Black and Hispanic drivers have increased by 129% and 35%, respectively.

— Burlington, from 2012 to 2019, there has been a 64.8% decline in traffic stops. The decline in stops for white drivers was greater, at 67%, than stops of Black drivers, at 54%, Asian drivers, at 50%, and Hispanic drivers, at 53%.

The report also found the department’s data quality is “poor,” with a high rate of missing information in critical categories, such as race of driver, gender, and stop outcome. “Burlington Police Department’s data quality is notably worse than a number of other Vermont law enforcement agencies, some of which have reduced missing race data to 0%,” the report stated. 

— Colchester, Black drivers are about 2.3 times more likely to be searched subsequent to a stop than white drivers. Also, Asian and Hispanic drivers are less likely to be searched than white drivers.

— South Burlington, Black drivers are less likely to be issued a citation during a traffic stop than white drivers. However, Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to be issued multiple citations during the same stop. 

— Williston, Black drivers are twice as likely to be searched after a stop as white drivers. There were no searches of Asian drivers from 2012-2019, and Hispanic drivers were searched at a similar rate to white drivers.

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