As Data Show Rising Racial Gaps In Police Stops, Committee Considers Next Steps

Jul 1, 2016

A committee charged with addressing bias in the state police is taking its first steps to respond to the racial discrepancies revealed in data on traffic stops.

When the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee met this week, it was the first time since the data on state police traffic stops were presented to them last month.

The group, which is made up of law enforcement representatives, lawmakers and social justice advocates, heard a new analysis of the data that highlighted some alarming trends that weren’t included in the May presentation.

“It’s not just that there’s just one indicator for racial disparities, all of them do for blacks and all are statistically significant,” said new committee member and University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino as she presented her analysis of the five and a half years of state police traffic stop data.

Seguino broke the information down year-by-year. Her findings show an increasing trend of racial disparities in traffic stops.

Seguino says African American drivers, especially, are being stopped and searched more frequently, despite increased attention to the issue.

“Vermont State Police has been doing training around this, but the evidence is telling that us that more needs to be done and I think that it would be important to understand why that gap is widening,” she told the committee.

The analysis Seguino co-authored indicates that African-American drivers are 4.6 times more likely to be searched than white drivers and that this disparity has widened since 2011.

Hispanic drivers are four times as likely to be searched.

Seguino’s analysis also focused on "hit rates" — the frequency with which a search was conducted and  contraband was found.

“Minority hit rates that are lower than white hit rates are an indication that police are over-searching minorities,” the study states.

The analysis concluded that hit rates for African-Americans and Hispanics compared to white drivers was statistically significant.   

"Vermont State Police has been doing training around this, but the evidence is telling that us that more needs to be done and I think that it would be important to understand why that gap is widening." — UVM professor Stephanie Seguino

The traffic stop data are also broken down by individual state barracks.

For example a black driver stopped by a trooper based at the Brattleboro barracks is six times more likely to be searched as a white driver, compared to the Middlesex barracks, where there was twice the likelihood.

The data also include stops by individual officers, who are identified only by randomly generated numbers. There, too, Seguino found a wide range.

“There is enormous disparity of behavior within the Vermont State Police itself and I think that’s something to look at,” she said.

Seguino said behavior can be shaped by the environment, leadership and culture at barracks.

Some committee members asked how the state police will deal with those officers who made disproportionate number of stops of minority drivers.

“There are obviously some people in the organization who need to think about what they’re doing and I’m curious about what steps if any have been taken thus far,” said Etan Nasreddin-Longo.

Captain Ingrid Jonas, the state police director of fair and impartial policing told the group there will be meetings with those troopers and they’ll be shown the data.

There was also a discussion about how officers are recruited.

Jonas says during the interview process applicants  are asked about racial bias in policing – and the answers vary widely.

“We get everything from ‘I don’t watch TV, so I don’t know anything about that’, to incredibly thoughtful answers,” she said.

Jonas says recruits are judged on answers to a range of questions, so on its own their answers about bias would not eliminate them from consideration.

"How do we work better to expect of them more of an awareness and knowing that this is part of police professionalism? It's a big question," she said.

Jonas also explained that new recruits receive two hours of basic training in fair and impartial policing and another four hours during subsequent training .

The pace of the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee is picking up now that there is data that can be used to measure bias in policing.

This week subcommittees were formed that will look into recruitment and training procedures. They’ll report back at the next meeting in September.

Committee member and Hinesburg representative Bill Lippert, said the data “confirms in clear ways [the] years of anecdotes about, ‘I’m stopped more often because of the color of my skin’.”

"We are now beginning to be at the place where the data can be useful in conjunction with the personal narratives," Lippert said. "It's a major step forward."

Beginning in September all Vermont law enforcement agencies will be required to collect traffic stop data and make it public.