A study carried out for the Vermont State Police found there was little evidence of racial profiling by troopers making traffic stops in Vermont but that there are racial disparities in the number of searches conducted and tickets issued.
The study painted a generally positive picture of the practices of the Vermont State Police. It turns out that the percentage of nonwhite motorists who are stopped by state troopers is actually smaller than the percentage of the nonwhite population. The nonwhite population constitutes 5.7 percent of Vermonters; but the number of traffic stops of nonwhites was only 4.4 percent of the total.
After they are stopped, however, nonwhite drivers are more likely to get a ticket than white drivers are. The percentage of white drivers who receive tickets is 42 percent. For nonwhites it is 52 percent.
In addition, nonwhite drivers were two and a half times more likely than whites to see their cars searched by state police. Significantly, however, troopers were far less likely to find contraband material in the cars of nonwhite drivers than they are in the cars of whites.
Vermont State Police Col. Thomas L’Esperance suggested that disparity in the results of vehicle searches suggests that police were being less prudent in initiating searches of cars driven by nonwhites. The result of searching cars that don’t merit a search is that the searches yield no contraband. L’Esperance acknowledged that the police needed to look into these disparities.
The study suggested that overall Vermont State Police exercise a relatively light hand. It turns out that only 1 percent of traffic stops in Vermont lead to searches. The percentage nationally ranges from 5 to 15 percent. Also, searches by Vermont police are more likely to turn up illegal material than searches in other states do. Seventy-three percent of searches produce contraband in Vermont, suggesting that, despite the disparity involving nonwhite drivers, police generally exercise restraint in deciding when to search.
Vermont police are also less likely to write tickets than police in other states. In Vermont only 42 percent of drivers who were stopped received a citation. That compares to 60 percent who were cited in Illinois.
State police characterized the study as the beginning of a conversation about the police and their treatment of minorities. It is an occasion for facing up to facts, recognizing patterns and engaging in the kind of self-examination that can lead to fairer policing. The point of the study is not to point a condemning finger at anyone but to learn and improve.
Certainly, African-Americans and other minorities are not unacquainted with patterns of policing that subject them to heightened scrutiny. Police in New York City, for example, have carried out an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy in minority neighborhoods, causing resentment but also acting as a crime preventative.
Many regions of the country have a history of racial oppression and injustice that lingers on today, filling the nation’s prisons with a disproportionately high number of minorities, crippling communities and disrupting lives. The legacy of racism can live on undetected unless the attitudes and behavior of police go under the microscope, as they have in this study.
The disparities in Vermont in no way reflect the kind of aggressive policing that occurs elsewhere, but it is worth noting when troopers’ decisions reflect possible bias.
Vermonters have also been sensitive to potential bias against immigrants who may be here illegally. In contrast to policies pursued in Arizona and Alabama, there is a strong desire among Vermonters, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, for police to refrain from immigration enforcement. There is significant presence on Vermont farms of undocumented workers. Profiling them for traffic stops or immigration inquiries would create a punitive and oppressive atmosphere that most Vermonters would abhor.
Human beings are always subject to ethnic and racial biases, which means studies like the recent one can be useful and constructive. Awareness and honesty are the key, which state police in Vermont appear to recognize.
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