Crime and Justice

Burlington Police Commission calls for independent group to investigate racial disparities

Burlington Police Commission member Stephanie Seguino. University of Vermont photo

The Burlington Police Commission has called for an independent group to investigate numerous racial disparities evident in the city’s policing statistics. 

In Burlington, Black people account for 6.2% of the population, but 21% of the police department’s arrests and 36% of the people officers used force on, according to the city’s 2021 annual report on police data.

In response to those findings, police commissioners have asked the city to contract with the Center for Policing Equity, an organization that analyzes race-related police data and advises departments on how to adjust their policies.

The group, Commissioner Stephanie Seguino said, “would support the police department in understanding better the sources of those disparities, but also addresses concerns in the community.”

“The debate is whether those disparities are justified or unjustified, and we are now at a stalemate,” Seguino said Tuesday at a meeting of the Police Commission. “There is disagreement and no path forward.”

In a letter explaining its request, the city’s police watchdog body pointed to multiple examples from the police department’s annual report that it said indicated racial bias.

When they arrested people last year, Burlington police were twice as likely to keep Black people in custody than white people, according to the report. Police were also half as likely to send Black people to the Community Justice Center, the city’s court diversion program. 

In addition, although the department has seen a decline in uses of force over the past decade, instances where officers use force on Black people have proportionally increased in recent years, according to data from the report. 

The department’s “black-white racial disparities in use-of-force suggest that Burlington police officers see black people as inherently threatening or dangerous,” the letter said. 

The letter noted a decline in one racial disparity statistic: Burlington police did not pull over a disproportionate number of Black drivers in 2021. 

But during those traffic stops, the letter said, officers were four times less likely to take action after pulling over a Black driver than a white driver. According to the commission, that could mean cops are pulling over Black drivers without a good enough reason for doing so.

Within the realm of traffic stops, the letter called out a disproportionate number of searches on people of color after they had been pulled over. Of the seven traffic stop searches Burlington police performed in 2021, only one was of a white driver, according to the letter.

According to acting Police Chief Jon Murad, citing the department’s 2021 annual report and other police data, the seven actually included two white drivers, two Asian drivers and three Black drivers. 

Seguino, an economics professor at the University of Vermont who researches racial disparities in policing around the state, said at a meeting last month it would be “naive” to believe that the proportionally higher number of arrests and uses of force against Black people were all justified. 

The need for an outside analysis of the department’s racial disparity data was not so evident to Murad, though he agreed at Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the commission’s request with Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger.

In an at-times-testy exchange with the commission, Murad contested the notion that Burlington police have a bias against Black people, and said the evidence commissioners presented is too thin to justify bringing in an outside party to investigate the disparities. 

Murad — who said he knew some members of the Center for Policing Equity’s senior leadership team and holds the organization in “high regard” — noted that the department already reports every use of force it takes during the police commission’s monthly meetings. Commissioners then have the opportunity to further review those incidents privately. 

But the commission, which is made up of Burlington residents appointed by the City Council, said the department would benefit from having expert eyes scrutinize the issue.

Commissioner Melo Grant, an outspoken critic of Murad, said the department would be “literally punching itself in the face” by not working with the organization.

“There’s this stubbornness to recognize and acknowledge feelings in the community,” Grant said at the meeting. “There has to be some effort to understand why people feel the way they do, and that’s going to require a frank look at how certain incidents are carried out.”

“By doing this, it’s not an admission of guilt,” Commissioner Suzy Comerford told Murad Tuesday night. “(It) can help the whole, entire community move forward and support you in terms of rebuilding the force.”

Police commissioners said working with the Center for Policing Equity would be free to the city, though Murad expressed concerns about potential expenses the city would incur.

In an email to VTDigger, Murad said he couldn’t estimate the cost, but “both fiscal cost and opportunity costs — that is, the affect (sic) on existing resources of doing another evaluation project so soon after the CNA assessment, which we have only just begun to address and incorporate into our rebuilding efforts — would be important considerations.”

If Burlington does heed the police commission’s recommendation, it won’t be the first time the city asks a third party to review its policing practices. 

The city commissioned an assessment of its police department, dubbed the “CNA Report,” as part of its police reform efforts in June 2020. After a review by a City Council subcommittee, that report is set to be discussed by the full council this year.

City Councilor Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, said working with the Center for Policing Equity would push the department to address the racial disparities in its policing statistics — something Magee suggested it’s unwilling to do right now.

“Chief Murad doesn't really acknowledge that there is racial bias in the department,” Magee told VTDigger. “We can look at study after study that shows that that's simply not true.”

Magee echoed members of the police commision in suggesting that the outside review could help recruit officers to the department, as the size of the force has dropped since the City Council’s 2020 efforts at police reform. (Magee and the council also voted this week to kickstart a three-year, $1.2 million “rebuilding plan” that seeks to recruit and retain more police officers.)

“This is how we get back to building community trust in the department,” Magee said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the number of traffic stop searches the department conducted in 2021 and the race of those searched.  

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: [email protected]

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