Crime and Justice

The pandemic tanked traffic stops in 2020 — but racial disparities remained, data shows

Updated Jan. 10.

Vermont traffic stops dropped 40% in 2020 to their lowest rate in years, led by pandemic-related changes in how police officers did their jobs.

But the longstanding gap between Black and white drivers remained in place that year, despite efforts by lawmakers, advocates and many police departments themselves to curb disparities.  Just as in previous years, the stop rate for Black drivers was twice as high as for white drivers. 

Black drivers were also three times more likely to be searched than white drivers — even though they were actually less likely to have contraband that led to a ticket or arrest. 

That’s the conclusion of research from University of Vermont professor Stephanie Seguino, Cornell University associate professor Nancy Brooks and programmer and data analyst Pat Autilio, who looked at data from agencies across the state that was submitted to the Vermont Criminal Justice Council under a state mandate. 

In the early days of the pandemic, law enforcement agencies were advised to “stop people only when they needed to,” Autilio said. There also was an apparent drop in traffic, as people stopped driving because they were in lockdown.

“We struggled with how to handle” the early days of the pandemic, when Covid was ramping up and officer safety was a key concern, said Capt. Barbara Kessler, part of the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee of the Vermont State Police, which tracks traffic stop data. 

The Vermont State Police had an even more dramatic drop than the state average: Its traffic stops fell 59% in 2020 compared with the year before.

“Our directive was, ‘Don’t stop cars unless it’s a serious safety violation,’” she said. 

Not all agencies reported a decline in traffic stops, however. About a fifth of agencies actually increased the number of stops they did in 2020, according to Seguino and Autilio’s analysis.

The agencies that increased their traffic stops were scattered across the state and varied in size and scope. Some, like Dover and Stowe, appear to be towns with a high percentage of second-home owners, and had large population increases in the 2020 Census

Wilmington is one such town. It reported 1,376 traffic stops in 2020, a 109% increase from the year before. Wilmington Police Chief Matthew Murano said that, during the pandemic, so many second-home owners moved in all at once that even small back streets started getting traffic.

He said the main reason for the jump, though, may be that the department was sufficiently staffed in 2020 for the first time in a while. Small departments have always had staffing issues, he said. 

“There’s not a lot of upward mobility” within small departments, “so they become training or launching points for people to move to state agencies,” he said.

Recruitment has dropped even further this year. In 2019, Murado received more than 100 applications for open positions on the force. In 2021, when he posted more vacancies, he got only 14. 

Asked if it was still worthwhile for the department to focus on traffic policing, he said, “we need to remove aggressive drivers, even in the pandemic.”

Other departments in Vermont have decided that traffic policing isn’t the best use of officers’ time. In South Burlington, where stops fell 35% to 1,360 for the first year of the pandemic, Chief Shawn Burke said they may be “half that” in 2021.

“Officers are making that decision,” he said. “We’ve been wrestling with this data for a number of years. If they’re not looking in the mirror and seeing an explicit racist, they’re saying, ‘What am I doing?’ ”

Police officers aren’t “villains,” but they have implicit bias, he said. “We need to be conscious of the decisions we’re making.”

Seguino said there’s evidence that suggests reducing traffic stops can contribute to lowering the racial disparities in arrests and searches. 

That’s particularly true of pretextual stops, where officers stop drivers for a minor violation because they suspect a more serious crime has been committed. “Because of racial dynamics in the United States, law enforcement tends to be more suspicious of people who are Black and brown,” Seguino said. “And they are therefore more likely to be stopped for pretextual reasons than our white drivers.”

But there’s little evidence that 2020’s declining traffic-stop numbers had an effect on racial bias. Stops dropped about the same amount for white and Black drivers, the analysis showed, keeping the gap between the two racial groups in place.

Some agencies had even wider gaps, including South Burlington, where stops of white drivers fell 35% but stops of Black drivers fell only 2%. Burke said the town’s growing population of people of color could have contributed to there being less of a difference for minority groups. 

Considering pretextual stops, he said, “South Burlington is far more concerned with responding to actual crimes and people in crisis.” Officers are spending more time responding to people in crisis with unmet needs — like mental health calls, suicides, intoxication and welfare checks.

Who’s using the data?

Etan Nasreddin-Longo, another member of the Vermont State Police Fair and Impartial Policing Committee, questioned whether every agency was looking at its own numbers and using them to inform its police practices going forward. 

With about 70 different agencies in the state, Vermont values decentralization and fragmentation of its local governance, he said, but they have their “drawbacks.” 

“There’s a minimum standard for departments to have a fair and impartial policy, but we don’t know how it’ll be interpreted in every department,” he said. 

Nasreddin-Longo, who also is chair of the racial disparities advisory panel for the state Legislature, said local agencies also may not have the time or person power to properly track their traffic stops.

“If they’re so understaffed that they’re not even stopping people, who’s going to be collecting data?” he said. 

He and other members of the advisory panel are pushing for creation of a racial justice statistics office at the state level. Several House members introduced H.546 this week, which would create that office as a division of the Agency of Administration. 

“If you really want consistent directives toward policies, you need to have good data,” he said. 

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Erin Petenko

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