Two separate incidents of racial harassment in recent months have revealed disparities in the way law enforcement agencies deal with “bias incidents,” according to the president of the Vermont chapter of the NAACP.
Last month, Gov. Phil Scott publicly apologized to an African American Vermonter who was harassed while driving a vehicle with New York license plates. Scott said the incident put a spotlight on the racism and xenophobia that could become exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and he ordered Vermont State Police to investigate the encounter.
But another incident of harassment, captured on video in late March, is raising questions about how police deal with bias incidents. And according to the Tabitha Moore, head of the Vermont chapter of the NAACP, access to justice in Vermont can depend on where you live.
The video, shot on a smart phone, depicts footage of a man yelling at two Latina women sitting in the parking lot of a shopping plaza in Rutland City, next to a white SUV with New York license plates.
“Get out of here!” the man screams repeatedly. “Go back to your infected state!”
The women were employees of a New York-based cleaning company, called Janitronics, which was contracted to provide janitorial services at a hospital surge site set up by Rutland Regional Medical Center. They were in the parking lot, with the state’s blessing, to recruit local workers for the job.
VPR was able to speak with a Janitronics representative, but couldn't reach the women in the video.
“Go back to your infected state!” the man yells. “If you’re worried about cleaning s--- up, clean up New York, where your plates are from.”
Moore saw the video, which was taken in late March, shortly after the man who filmed it posted it on his Facebook page. The man who shot the video appears to be the same man yelling at the women.
When Moore learned a few weeks later that the incident had not been reported to local police, she shared the video with Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen. Kilcullen told VPR recently that he reviewed the footage and opted not to investigate it further.
“When I looked at it, I said, ‘Okay, from a police standpoint, first, is there anything criminal in nature?'" Kilcullen said. “And from what I could gather from the video, it didn’t appear anything was criminal in nature, so from a criminal standpoint we wouldn’t investigate that further.”
For Moore, Kilcullen’s decision not to investigate took on new significance after a press briefing by Gov. Phil Scott last month.
Scott had learned of an incident in the Upper Valley, where an African American man from Hartford, Chris Brown, said another, unidentified man berated him while Brown was driving in a vehicle with New York license plates.
Scott condemned the incident on live television.
“I want to be very clear, I have no tolerance for this kind of thing. It’s unacceptable,” Scott said on May 13. “It does not represent my views, or who I believe we are as a state.”
Scott also ordered Vermont State Police to investigate the incident.
Moore said it was a crystallizing moment.
“You know, it’s really crazy, this is so similar to what happened in Rutland, and there’s such a different response,” Moore said. “The stark contrast, it really speaks to how discretion plays a role in what justice looks like.”
Kilcullen said he wasn’t aware of the incident until Moore sent him the video. By the time that happened, he said, several weeks had passed since the footage was posted.
Kilcullen said he later found out that a city employee had witnessed the exchange, and that a Rutland building inspector and code-enforcement officer walked to the scene after the incident occurred.
“Well, certainly in our case we weren’t aware of it for a month," Kilcullen said. "We weren’t called, the police department specifically."
The police chief said he isn’t sure the man’s behavior constituted a bias incident, let alone a crime.
“I wasn’t sure that it necessarily was a bias incident,” Kilcullen said.
Capt. Garry Scott, director of fair and impartial policing for the Vermont State Police, has reviewed the footage. Scott said in his determination, the incident was motivated by racial bias.
“Sort of the language and sort of the tone of all of it is something we definitely don’t tolerate in Vermont,” Scott said.
He added he doesn’t think the man’s behavior was criminal. But he said he’s forwarded the footage to the attorney general’s office for a civil review.
“It was directed toward people of color from out of state, with out-of-state license plates," Scott said. "So I think at the very preliminary looking at it, there’s information there that you’d want to investigate further."
The man yelling in the video, who VPR was unable to contact via social media or telephone, doesn’t reference the Latina women’s race during the encounter. On a message that accompanied the video on Facebook, however, he said the women had “Jamaican accents.”
“A lot of people have watched this video and they see an angry man calling out people because of their New York plates, and they see rudeness and ignorance, but they don’t necessarily see racism,” said Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Human Rights.
Yang, however, said it’s the women’s skin color that likely precipitated the exchange, and that had they been white, the man probably wouldn’t have reacted as he did.
“In fact, I haven’t heard of any instances in which visitors to Vermont, or people who have second homes here, who are white, are saying they’re being harassed because of their license plates,” Yang said. “And so race becomes sort of this basis to distinguish 'us' from 'them,' and that’s what I see happening here.”
Last month, at Moore’s behest, Kilcullen forwarded the video to the attorney genrals' civil rights unit, so that it could decide whether or not the man’s behavior constituted a bias incident.
A bias incident is defined by the attorney general’s office as any event in which someone tries to threaten, offend or intimidate someone based on their perceived race, religion, country of origin or other protected status.
“If the possibility exists, I think it’s prudent just to forward it,” Kilcullen said.
Moore, however, said she still sees a gaping discrepancy in how bias incidents are dealt with by law enforcement agencies in Vermont.
In Hartford, the victim got a personal apology from the governor, a full-throated condemnation of the harassment he experienced, and a criminal investigation that, according to the Vermont Department of Public Safety, is still ongoing.
In Rutland, Moore said, police decided not to investigate, and forwarded the video to the attorney general’s office after being asked to by the Vermont NAACP.
“You can rationalize it any way you want to as a police officer, but if you’re thinking about 21st century policing models, you’ve got to realize that you just did some serious harm with your disenfranchised communities,” Moore said.
Anti-racism protests happening across Vermont and the nation, Moore said, are about far more than the killing of black people while in police custody.
“It’s the everyday things that are happening, like the incident in the Price Chopper parking lot,” Moore said. “Those are the things that we should be attending to quickly and systemically.”
Asked whether it’s investigating the incident in the Rutland parking lot, the attorney general’s office said Vermont statute prohibits it from commenting on the status or even existence of ongoing investigations.