Study: Racial disparities in Vermont police traffic stops

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Posted: Jan 09, 2017 6:38 PM
Study: Racial disparities in Vermont police traffic stops

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A study of statewide police traffic stops in Vermont, the second-whitest state in the country, has found racial disparities in how police treat drivers.

Black drivers were four times more likely than whites to be searched after traffic stops, and Hispanic drivers were nearly three times more likely, according to the University of Vermont study, "Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont." At the same time, black and Hispanic drivers were less likely than white and Asian drivers to be found with contraband that leads to an arrest or citation, according to the report, which was based on 2015 data.

Black and Hispanic drivers also were more likely than white drivers to get traffic tickets versus warnings, and black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested after stops, the study said.

"Almost all of the agencies in our study exhibit disparities in traffic policing to one degree or another," said study co-author Stephanie Seguino, a professor in the university's Department of Economics. "In other words, the results are not uniquely attributable to one or two agencies, but it's really a widespread problem in terms of policing."

One of the reasons some police officers use to explain the higher rate of searches of black drivers versus white drivers is concerns about the opioid crisis and drugs coming in from out of state, and there's a racial component to those perceptions, Seguino said. But the study found white and Asian drivers were more likely than black or Hispanic drivers stopped to be found with contraband.

Vermont, which has a population of about 625,000, was 94.8 percent white the year the policing study was done, according to U.S. Census figures. Only Maine, at 94.9 percent, was whiter. Blacks made up 1.3 percent of the Vermont population, Hispanics 1.8 percent and Asians 1.6 percent.

The study looked at traffic stop data from 29 departments across Vermont, following a 2014 state law that required police to collect such race information. But many agencies had missing data in key categories, said co-author Nancy Brooks, of Cornell University, who said more work is needed to improve the data quality.

Police treatment of drivers varied among departments, the study found.

In Rutland, for example, police searched black drivers at a rate of more than six times that of white drivers while white drivers searched were found with contraband at a higher rate than black drivers.

Rutland police Chief Brian Kilcullen, who has been on the job since November 2015, said he was somewhat surprised by the findings.

"You start with awareness, and that's what this does," he said of the report, adding that the police department has done training sessions.

Burlington police Chief Brandon del Pozo said his department is seeing an improvement in the rate at which searches lead to contraband, called the hit rate, meaning police are doing fewer unnecessary searches.

To reduce the racial disparities, the report's authors recommend creating a standardized system for collecting data, giving officers feedback on their performance during stops, supporting police departments in giving frequent training sessions on bias and monitoring disparities annually.