Poll Shows Vermonters Have Mixed Responses To Law Enforcement And Race
A new VPR-Vermont PBS poll found Vermonters have complicated, mixed feelings when it comes to law enforcement and race. While 61% of respondents had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in their local law enforcement, about half of respondents also say police in Vermont occasionally or regularly discriminate against people of color.
In the two months since police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests against police brutality and systemic racism have swept the county — including Vermont. Thousands of people have marched in cities and towns across the state demanding overhauls to the policing, and in some cases, state and local leaders have taken steps to institute reforms.
In front of the statehouse in Montpelier on a recent Saturday, a group of about 250 people waving American flags and signs reading "Support Our Police" gathered. The rally was an attempt to show solidarity with Vermont cops, who pro-police organizers say have been unfairly criticized in recent weeks.
Michael Hall, Manchester's former police chief and the executive director of the Vermont Police Coalition, told the crowd most police officers are good people.
“Please do not paint us with the same brush as you do the very few that don’t do the right thing,” he said.
But about 15 minutes into the rally, about 150 racial justice protesters marched in front of the crowd, chanting “Black Lives Matter.” They shouted over each pro-police speaker for the next hour. William Dunkley, of Westford, was one of the counter-protesters.
“The support-the-law-enforcement rally folks were able to have some of their messages heard, but then pretty much we made a lot of noise and probably some people couldn’t hear much anymore,” Dunkley said. “We just really disrupted things and they went home early.”
“Please do not paint us with the same brush as you do the very few that don’t do the right thing." — Michael Hall, former Manchester police chief
The rally and counter-protest highlight a debate playing out across the country, as cities and states mull dramatic changes to police departments in the wake of George Floyd's death. In Vermont, state and local leaders have already made some changes.
In Burlington, the state’s largest city, the city council approved a plan to reduce its police force by 30%. City officials in Barre voted to create a citizen panel to review complaints against the police.
At the state level, Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill that banned chokeholds, required state police to get body cameras and tied some state funding of local law enforcement to the collection of traffic stop data — something that was mandated years ago but isn’t consistently done.
While a new VPR-Vermont PBS poll indicates a majority of respondents have trust in their local law enforcement, it also shows 49% said police regularly or occasionally discriminate against people of color. Another 44% said it rarely, or never, happens.
“Well, I think that everybody has implicit biases,” said Nancy Stockwell of Woodstock.
Stockwell is one the poll respondents. She said that while she has had good experiences with the police, she knows that isn’t the case for everyone.
“It seems that there have been instances within the state of Vermont where it has been shown that there has been racial bias,” she said.
"I think that everybody has implicit biases." — Nancy Stockwell, Woodstock resident
Statewide traffic stop data shows that Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Black drivers are also more likely to be searched, but are less likely to have contraband than white people who are searched.
University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino says that traffic stops are one of the most common areas people interact with police, making it a good window into how people are treated by law enforcement.
“Some things we can measure pretty accurately, and they can be good proxies for other types of economic or social outcomes,” she said. “And that's what I think is going on with the traffic stop data, is I think it’s a proxy for other types of police relations.”
Segunio co-authored the first examination of the state’s traffic stop data in 2017. That study only looked at data for 2015, but Segunio said a new study out this fall will examine several years of traffic stops.
"I don't see this as a time for the police to be defensive or to feel sorry for ourselves. I see it as a time to listen, learn and adapt and meet the needs of our specific communities." — Shawn Burke, South Burlington Police Chief
Besides the traffic stop data, there’s not much statewide information on other police interactions, though Burlington has released reports on use-of-force incidents and arrest rates — both of which showed racial disparities.
That dearth of information is an issue that the Department of Public Safety is hoping to tackle. The department wants to create a public portal that would display data from all the police departments in Vermont, according to Commissioner Michael Schirling.
“No personal identifying information,” Schirling said, “but you should be able to drill in by community, by county, by type of call, by type of crime, by use of force, by race data.”
State support of data collection would be valuable for local law enforcement, said South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke. He says most agencies aren’t big enough to have their own data analyst like Burlington does.
Burke said he’s not surprised that the VPR-Vermont PBS poll showed a high level of trust in local law enforcement, but he says given racial disparities in things like traffic stops, agencies should continue efforts to improve.
“I don’t see this as a time for the police to be defensive or to feel sorry for ourselves,” Burke said. “I see it as a time to listen, learn and adapt and meet the needs of our specific communities.”
"It is incredibly important what Black and Brown people think about these issues." — Mark Hughes, Justice For All Executive Director
Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice For All, an advocacy group that aims to dismantle systemic racism, said he’s not surprised by the poll results either.
Hughes, who’s on the Burlington Police Commission, also said he would have preferred the poll include a racial breakdown of respondents.
“It is incredibly important what Black and Brown people think about these issues,” he said. “And if we’re not measuring it, then we’ll never be able to manage that, nor will we be able to move from an anecdotal discussion to something where we’re dealing with an empirical data to really make policy changes.”
The conversations around police reform in Vermont are far from over. Schirling, the public safety commissioner, said the department has a 10-point plan that all local law enforcement should follow. The “modernization” plan includes adding more community oversight of police and updating training requirements.
The Legislature is also expected to take up more reform measures, like a statewide use-of-force policy, when they return this month.
“Finding ways to meaningfully allow communities to lead this process, seeing government as the stewards of the community rather than as the people that dictate,” Moore said.
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From July 15 to July 28, the VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters how they felt about COVID-19, racial inequality and other issues. Explore the full results here.