Driving while black: Bias study includes CPD data

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Colchester Police Department was included in a recent report that examined the prevalence of racial bias in policing across Vermont. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Colchester Police Department was included in a recent report that examined the prevalence of racial bias in policing across Vermont. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

A new study on racial bias in policing highlights major inequalities statewide, but police Chief Jennifer Morrison said local numbers show there is “no cause for alarm” in Colchester.

Authored by University of Vermont professor Stephanie Seguino and visiting professor Nancy Brooks, the study found black drivers in Vermont were nearly twice as likely to be arrested after a traffic stop than white drivers during 2015.

Statewide, black drivers were more likely to be stopped and ticketed and were four times more likely to be searched after a stop, despite data showing white drivers more often had contraband.

In Colchester, the numbers generally showed far less disparity than seen in statewide totals.

“[The numbers are] supportive of the fact that we have police officers that police this community impartially,” Morrison said.

According to data for 2015, Colchester officers stopped 6,386 white drivers, 229 black drivers, 94 Asian drivers, 46 Hispanic drivers and marked 226 drivers’ race as “unknown.” Those figures exclude externally generated stops.

That means black drivers were stopped in Colchester at a rate .5 percent higher than the black share of the population in Chittenden County, according to data provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In other words, although only about 2.9 percent of the county’s population is black, those drivers made up 3.4 percent of Colchester’s stops.

Eight of the 29 towns included in the study showed a lower discrepancy than seen in Colchester, but the vast majority (20 towns) had higher differences. Vergennes, which showed the biggest gap, saw a stop rate of black drivers that was nearly three times as high as the share of Addison County’s black population.

Back in Colchester, officers were slightly less likely to give a warning to black (65.9 percent) or Asian drivers (66 percent) compared to white drivers (66.7 percent), but considerably more likely to give Hispanic drivers a warning (78.3 percent).

In a break from statewide data, black and Hispanic drivers stopped in Colchester were, in fact, less likely to get a ticket at 31.9 percent and 21.7 percent, respectively versus white drivers (32.8 percent). Asian drivers were ticketed at a slightly higher rate, 33 percent, than their white counterparts.

In Colchester, black and Asian drivers were more likely to be searched (1.7 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively) than white drivers (1.1 percent), but were also more likely to be found with contraband.

Seventy-five percent of searched black drivers and 100 percent of searched Asian drivers had contraband, compared to 74.6 percent of white drivers. None of the Hispanic drivers stopped were searched.

Black drivers were four times as policedatalikely to be arrested after a stop (.4 percent) than white drivers in Colchester (.1 percent). According to the provided data, officers did not arrest any Asian or Hispanic drivers.

But Morrison said she’s hesitant to rely too heavily on these numbers. Only one black driver was arrested in Colchester in 2015, she noted, the single incident accounting for the .4 percent figure.

“It’s hard to find patterns when there is so few pieces of data to pull from,” Morrison said.

Seguino, the study’s author, said data from stops of more than 3,000 black drivers across the state in 2015 provided “more than needed” for statistical reliability. Inferences were only made, she said, when the sample size was large enough.

It’s an argument Seguino is used to hearing in a majority-white, progressively minded state like Vermont, she said.

“We have a self-conception that is at odds with the data,” Seguino said. “That has been hard for people. I think that’s why you get those responses of denial.”

She hopes the departments studied will use the numbers as a jumping off point for discussion. Seguino said she’s already had “great conversations” with chiefs across the state, many confessing the problems they see in their own departments.

“One chief said when he pulls over a black driver, he is afraid,” Seguino said. “That was an important acknowledgement. We all have implicit bias.”

Seguino said she hopes department heads will have conversations about race with their officers and troopers.

Some towns, including Essex, released data about individual officers stop rates. Seguino said the marker can help chiefs see whether a handful of officers are responsible for increasing racial disparities, or if it’s a department wide problem.

Colchester did not release specific officer totals and are not required to under the state’s data-keeping legislation, passed in 2014.

“We don’t routinely monitor that,” Morrison said. “If there was a concern about an individual officer, we would hear about it long before the dataset was available.”

Seguino also hopes all departments will eventually be able to have implicit bias trainings, but noted the cost barriers may keep smaller agencies away.

In Colchester, Morrison said all officers receive some sort of implicit bias training, and several members are qualified to give the course to their co-workers.

“The long view and the broad view is how can you afford not to do the training,” Morrison said. “I’m not sure you can put a price tag on that type of training.”

Ultimately, Morrison said she wasn’t startled by any of the Colchester figures. She vowed to continue scrutinizing numbers on the local, regional and state level.

“Data is just one piece of a complicated puzzle,” Morrison said. “We need to continue to keep our finger on the pulse.”

The University of Vermont study “Driving while black and brown in Vermont” can be found at http://bit.ly/2k1wah5. Data provided by the Colchester Police Department can be found at http://bit.ly/2iKKM2w.