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AG's 'Bias-Incident' Reporting System Falls Flat With Racial Justice Leaders

Mark Hughes stands downtown
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR File
Mark Hughes, founder of Justice for All, says a "bias-incident reporting system" launched earlier this year has done little to addressed the systemic racism affecting people of color in Vermont.

Racial justice advocates say they’re unimpressed by a reporting system launched earlier this year that changed the way police handle racial bias incidents in Vermont.

Two weeks ago, a group of men allegedly harassed and threatened migrant farm workers in Addison County. Not long after that, white nationalist stickers began popping up at the University of Vermont.

Incidents of hate speech aren’t new to Vermont, of course. But Attorney General TJ Donovan has developed a new way of responding to them.

In January, Donovan unveiled something he called a “Bias Incident Reporting System.” Eight months after its launch, Donovan says that might have been a bit of a misnomer.

“It’s more of a protocol than a system,” Donovan said this week. “It’s people talking with each other.”

But those people are “talking with each other” in different ways now, Donovan said.

"When you identify gaps in the system, you have two choices: You can do nothing and leave the gap or you can seek to address it." — Attorney General TJ Donovan

Donovan said local police agencies have historically been the place people go to lodge complaints about hate speech or bias. The problem, he said, is that those incidents often don’t meet the criteria to qualify as a crime.

“And I think, where the gap in the system existed was, oftentimes those calls and complaints would start and end at police dispatch - ‘It’s not a crime I can’t help you,’” Donovan said.

Donovan’s initiative has created a new set of protocols for handling those incidents. Now, local police are forwarding information about so-called bias incidents to the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, so they can decide whether they merit notifying the Human Rights Commission, the civil rights division of the Attorney General’s Office, or the U.S. attorney.

“To have some sort of civil response when there’s not a criminal response,” Donovan said. “And so it is bringing more resources, more players to this issue, which desperately needs it.”

The rollout of Donovan’s new program, however, has fallen flat with some prominent racial justice leaders in Vermont.

Mark Hughes, founder of Justice for All, sat recently at a pocket park in Burlington’s Old North End, wedged between Archibald Street and North Winooski Avenue.

“This whole area that we’re sitting in right here … arguably this is the blackest neighborhood in Burlington, right here,” Hughes said.

Hughes lives about five-minute walk from this spot. And he said white supremacist stickers are a pretty common sight - common enough that he regularly sees municipal workers in reflective vests trying to wipe them out of existence.

“They will have paint. They will have scrub brushes. And they’re out - I kind of laugh about it - I say they’re cleaning up their kids’ mess,” Hughes said. “And you see them and they try to do it on the [down low], but it’s always happening. It’s always happening.”

"To create yet another mechanism for reporting bias doesn't change the underlying conditions where bias begins to manifest itself." — Curtiss Reed, Jr., Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity

But Hughes said these overt acts of hate speech aren’t the sort of racism that concerns him most.

“I don’t need anybody to keep me safe from white people, okay?” Hughes said.

What Hughes said he and other people of color in Vermont need is a coordinated response to the systemic racism that he says has infected government institutions.  

“Black and brown people have been asking for some type of apparatus so they would be able to seek remedy when their civil liberties are violated, whether it’s in housing, education, employment,” Hughes said.

And the bias-incident reporting system, Hughes said, is not that apparatus.

Context is important to understanding Hughes’ criticism: Donovan launched his bias-incident reporting initiative on the same day he decided not to press charges against a white nationalist that had allegedly threatened and harassed an African American female lawmaker.

That decision rankled leaders of color in Vermont. And Hughes said the reporting system seemed like an attempt to deflect criticism.

“The perception, at least, is that this more of a damage-control, knee-jerk response,” Hughes said.

To make matters worse, Hughes said, Donovan didn’t bother asking people of color to help create the incident reporting system.

“At least invite us to the table, and have a conversation about it before you do it, you know?” Hughes said.

Hughes isn’t the only person leveling that critique.

“This system was not vetted by the folks who are intimately involved with these incidents,” said Curtiss Reed, Jr., the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

Reed said he also has concerns about the utility of the new reporting mechanism.

“And so to create yet another mechanism for reporting bias doesn’t change the underlying conditions where bias begins to manifest itself,” Reed said.

Julio Thompson, head of the civil rights division at the Attorney General’s Office, said the new reporting system has yielded results. Thompson said he wasn’t liberty to identify specific cases in which the new reporting protocols resulted in civil enforcement, or some type of restorative justice process.

“We’ve had cases, and I can’t go into details on particular cases, but we’ve clearly had conversations from all over the state where something that we know from our experience which started at a police [station] would have stopped at the police station, and instead those individuals are talking to other representatives who work in the civil sphere,” Thompson said.

Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, is less bullish on the new reporting protocols. The Human Rights Commission is one of the three organizations to which incidents of bias are now being reported.

But Yang said her office has ‘not seen any difference in the number or types of cases’ being sent to the commission.

“The few notices of bias incidents from the AGs office (less than a handful) did not result in any complaint because no respondents could be identified,” Yang said in an email.

Donovan said he knows the bias-incident reporting system isn’t going to end systemic racism in Vermont. But he said that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort.

“When you identify gaps in the system, you have two choices: You can do nothing and leave the gap or you can seek to address it,” Donovan said. “And if people want to impute motives to that, so be it. I’m going to continue to do my job and do what I think is right.”

As for not including people of color in its creation, Donovan says he should have known better.

“We’re not going to walk away from the table because we’re being criticized. We’re going to embrace the criticism and learn from it, because that’s exactly what we have to do,” Donovan said. “We have to be willing to listen and self-reflect. And I think the issue of trust is a major issue.”

Hughes said there is reason for optimism. He said Act 54, passed in 2017, has established a new process for identifying and addressing systemic racism in Vermont. And he said Donovan deserves some credit for supporting that legislation.

“How many other states in the United States do you know of that have come out … and said, ‘We have systemic racism in this state and it affects all systems of state government and we want to do something about it?’” Hughes said.

But Hughes said realizing the promise of Act 54 will require elected officials and policy makers “to stay focused on that.”

Hughes said that means increasing data collection in state agencies and the criminal justice system, to ferret out racial disparities where they exist, and institute remedies to stop them.

“Right now it’s time for us to double down and keep our eye on the ball,” Hughes said, “double down, and stay true to our commitments.”

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