Study Finds Racial Disparities In Vermont State Police Traffic Stops

May 25, 2016

A five-and-a-half year study of Vermont State Police has found disparities in traffic stops that officials say point to racial bias.

The study found that non-white drivers were more likely to be stopped, given citations and searched than white drivers in Vermont.

The disparity in state police traffic stops was most pronounced for black drivers compared to white drivers.

For example, the percentage of black drivers searched after a traffic stop was nearly five times that of white drivers.

Conversely, the data shows that of the white drivers who were searched, a much higher percentage were found to have contraband, compared to non-white motorists.

There was also generally a greater likelihood that Hispanic, Asian and Native American drivers would be stopped, cited or searched compared to white drivers, although the percentages were lower than for African-American drivers.

The information was compiled by the Institute on Race and Justice and the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research at Northeastern University.

Listen to Wednesday's Vermont Edition: Digging Into Data On State Police Traffic Stops

Associate Director Jack McDevitt, who presented the data, said unlike Vermont State Police, most police agencies in the country don’t collect traffic stop data to help them determine the extent of racial bias.

“There’s no glaring areas,” McDevitt said of the information, which he presented to a group that included state police commanders and members of the state police Fair and Impartial Policing Committee.

“But there are areas where there are disparities, and it’s the place where you want to say, ‘Is there something more here?’” he added.

“I commend the state police for doing what they're doing. However, there's far more work to be done.” - Attorney Robert Appel, a former director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission

Attorney Robert Appel, a former director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission and a member of the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee, pushed back, pointing to the higher percentage of searches of African American drivers.

“That’s a significant number, a very significant number.” Appel said. “I commend the state police for doing what they’re doing. However, there’s far more work to be done.”

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn agreed the data points to racial bias.

“We have some bias that we need to deal with. I believe its implicit bias. If it's explicit bias, rather than implicit bias, well, I will deal with that too,” he said.

Flynn said the data will allow state police to look at the behavior of individual officers to see where more training or better leadership could improve behavior, or if disciplinary action is necessary.

"We have some bias that we need to deal with. I believe its implicit bias. If it's explicit bias, rather than implicit bias, well, I will deal with that too." - Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn

Mark Hughes of the Montpelier-based organization Justice For All said the data have been a long time coming. Hughes said it’s important that it be used to hold state police accountable and take meaningful steps to address bias.

“I think what the community would like to see from a trust [perspective] and also a transparency, accountability and legitimacy perspective is a continuance of this, a consistency of this and maybe not an ‘analysis/paralysis’ of this data,” he said.

“We need to acknowledge this, we need to be held accountable for it and we need to work on it,” Capt. Ingrid Jonas, director of Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs for the state police, said on Vermont Edition Wednesday.

Since 2014, the collection of traffic stop data as a way to measure racial profiling has been required of all law enforcement agencies in Vermont. 

But some police departments have failed to meet the requirement.

Racial justice advocates believe bias is more pronounced at local police and sheriff’s department than it is at the state police level.