SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — A study of almost 26,000 traffic stops by police in three cities and by the University of Vermont police department found that per capita black drivers are almost twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped in Burlington and South Burlington.
The study, conducted to determine if there was racial disparity in traffic stops in three cities in the state’s most populous county, found that in Burlington the percentage of drivers stopped for suspicious activity is 85 percent higher for blacks than for whites and black drivers are more likely to be arrested in Burlington and South Burlington than are white drivers. Disparities also were found in Winooski and in stops by the UVM police department.
“What we find is there is a fairly consistent pattern of statistically significant racial disparity in Burlington and South Burlington,” said Stephanie Seguino, a University of Vermont economist who analyzed the data. “In Winooski there is disparity with regards to males stopped, that is men of color tend to be much more likely to be stopped as a percentage of all minority drivers, relative to whites. At UVM, we see in two categories that there are racial disparities.”
While Vermont has one of the lowest minority populations in the country, the minority numbers are growing, and much of that minority population is located in the three cities where the stops were studied. UVM is located in Burlington.
Despite the small number of minorities, police departments across Vermont have been working hard to detect racial biases in policing practices. In February, the state police released a study of almost 50,000 traffic stops by troopers that found that minority drivers were more likely to be stopped and ticketed and their vehicles searched than white drivers.
The police departments that were working together to produce the report also were working with a group called the Uncommon Alliance, which was formed in 2007 and is seeking to eliminate racial and ethnic biases in policing in the three cities involved in the study released Monday and in the UVM police department.
“Among our key roles, and the one highlighted today, is to mitigate the impact of those biases in law enforcement operations and in the criminal justice system as a whole,” said Burlington police Chief Michael Schirling, speaking on behalf of the four departments that participated in the data collection. “Bias in law enforcement and criminal justice not only adversely impacts those who bias is exerted on, sometimes by dehumanizing them, but erodes the effectiveness of the criminal justice system by distracting resources from real problems.”
The study found that penalties are between 9 percent and 14 percent harsher for black drivers than white drivers in Burlington and South Burlington. Hispanic drivers on average receive 15 percent harsher penalties than whites at UVM.
Even though the Chittenden County study looked at almost 26,000 traffic stops, Schirling said the number of stops of black drivers was relatively small. He said officers went through every report of black drivers whose cars were searched, and over two years there were 25 drivers, 16 of whom were arrested.
The Vermont Human Rights Commission’s chairman, Robert Appel, noted that that popular media frequently portray black men as criminals.
“We need to dig deep within ourselves and our institutions,” he said, “to change that story.”