The Cops Don’t Exist in a Vacuum

In the least shocking news of the year, Vermont Police are still being racist about their traffic stops.

The same research team that found racial disparities in traffic stops and searches two years ago, has updated its report to reflect two more years of data. And while there’s been some incremental improvement, things “are getting worse or staying the same,” according to lead researcher (and UVM prof) Stephanie Seguino.

Topline takeaways: You’re much more likely to be pulled over if you’re black or Hispanic in Vermont. If you’re pulled over, you’re much more likely to be searched — even though searches of white drivers are much more likely to uncover illegal activity.

The cherry on top: Despite a 2014 law mandating that police report the apparent race of each driver stopped, plenty of cops are flouting the law. Take, for example, Bennington’s racist PD, which is omitting the data more frequently than ever. And the Rutland PD, which has a specific problem with including racial data: “…for the 457 stops where race of the driver is not known, less than 1% of those stops had any other missing information about the stop.”

So now what? More sensitivity training? “Tough conversations”? Earnest promises to do better?

Yeah, a lot of that — although some can’t even be bothered to pretend to care. Bennington chief Paul Doucette lamely offered that he needed more time to look at the report before commenting. (The report notes that the volume of traffic stops in Bennington increased by 65% between 2015 and 2019. If Doucette has had any second thoughts about his minions’ racist performance, the word hasn’t filtered down through the ranks.)

And, judging by his track record, he probably hung up the phone and tossed the report into the circular file.

Which is not to say that we should place all the blame at the feet of a few cops and chiefs. After all, the thing about “bad apples” is that they spoil the barrel.

Or maybe the whole barrel was spoiled to begin with.

Last year, Seguino was interviewed on “Mudseason,” a podcast produced at UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont. She said that Vermont’s racial disparity is worse than in some states we’d think of as much more problematic. “We too have this same social disease of racial stereotyping,” she said.

Seguino was probably the least surprised person that racism in policing hasn’t gone away, because she spends time going around the state and talking about her work — and getting quite a bit of resistance.

“One of the responses is ‘Why should we be concerned, because Blacks are such a small portion of the population, as are Hispanics?'” She gave a couple of reasons to be concerned anyway. For one thing, people of color are our neighbors and fellow Vermonters, and shouldn’t be subjected to the humiliation and fear produced by being pulled over for no reason. And second, we are interested in growing Vermont and encouraging more diversity — aren’t we? — and needless encounters with police discourages people from moving here or staying here.

Seguino also notes that it’s not just socially negative, it’s also bad policing. “I often hear that the reason we have these racial disparities is because of the opioid epidemic, and that it’s largely Blacks and Hispanics who are bringing in drugs from out of state. The data, however, suggests that that is a stereotype that is not confirmed by the evidence.”

Her research has found that police more often stop and search people of color — but are far more likely to find contraband when they search white people. So if, for instance, the Bennington cops are prioritizing traffic enforcement as a way to stop drug trafficking, they are not only being racist, they are squandering their time and resources.

Seguino’s study only included a few local agencies plus the Vermont State Police. But it’s interesting that two of the departments, Bennington and Rutland, are located near the New York border. And the malodorous Vergennes police are patrolling Route 22, the major highway route from Route 4 to Burlington.

And to a large extent, these cops aren’t just fashioning racist practices on their own. I’m sure they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are doing their best to protect their communities. And many of their constituents share their wrongheaded stereotypes about drug trafficking and people of color.

“it’s important for us to realize that [the police] are a bellwether for what’s going on in many other aspects of life in Vermont,” Seguino said. If we continue to enable racist policing, what does that say about us?

I think it says there’s a little Paul LePage in all of us. In the words of the thuggish former governor of Maine:

“There are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty — these types of guys — they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”

Most of us are not as transparent as LePage, but that same sentiment is at the base of our unequal policing practices. And if we don’t take real steps to change things, we are all complicit.

I’ll close with a little social commentary from the great Keith Knight, whose weekly comic used to be carried by Seven Days.


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