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'A Level Of Implicit Bias': UVM Study Shows Black, Hispanic Drivers More Likely To Be Policed

A police car flashes its blue lights.
Angela Evancie
/
VPR File
A UVM study of traffic stop data from the state's police departments between 2014 and 2019 shows that compared to white drivers, Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be stopped and searched, though less likely to be found carrying contraband.

Black and Hispanic drivers in Vermont are stopped, ticketed, searched and arrested at significantly higher rates than white drivers. That’s a key finding from a new report released this month that analyzed more than 800,000 traffic stops from 2014 to 2019.

The analysis found that even though Black and Hispanic drivers are searched more often, they’re less likely to be found with contraband than white drivers, and these disparities have gotten worse over time. The study was made possible because a state law requires law enforcement agencies collect information on traffic stops, including the race of those they stop.

A note: The study clarifies that while the U.S. Census Bureau data record Hispanics as an ethnicity, not a race (Hispanics may be white or non-white), Vermont law enforcement agencies treat the category of Hispanics as a mutually exclusive racial category.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with the study’s co-author, University of Vermont Economics Professor Stephanie Seguino. Their conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. To begin, Epp asked Seguino to describe if the data shows why racial disparities continue to exist.

Stephanie Seguino: Well, I think it's important to understand that there can be racial disparities that are perhaps justified, because race is connected with something else that influences the decision to stop.

So, for example, if one racial group is comprised of people that are much younger than other racial groups, you might see differences there, because young people tend to have lower-quality driving. But racial bias can also play a role. And I think it's important to understand that in this study, we do two tests for racial bias, that is to distinguish between just disparities versus disparities in which the officer is using the race of the driver as a reason to engage in some kind of traffic stop interaction.

And sadly, you know, the police are no different than the rest of us, and they're no different than the rest of the country, in Vermont. And that is that we've all absorbed very negative stereotypes about people of color, and in particular Blacks and Hispanics. And I think there's a level of implicit bias and suspicion of people of color in a predominantly white state that causes them to be much more visible to the police and for the police to be much more likely to be suspicious of them.

Henry Epp: So, one big takeaway that you find is that these racial disparities in traffic stops have gotten worse over time, even though there's been more attention paid to this issue in recent years, particularly since an earlier study of yours on traffic stops was released in 2017.

Were you surprised in in this latest batch of findings that the disparities have persisted and, in some cases, worsened?

Yes, I was surprised. That's the hope of anybody that does this kind of work, is that data helps us. And so it was disappointing.

I do want to clarify that not all statistics have gotten worse. For example, search rates are down for all racial groups after the legalization of cannabis. Racial disparities continue to exist, but search rate disparities have diminished slightly. But arrest rate disparities increased. Stop rates per 1,000 residents also shows an increasing trend.

So, it's a mixed bag, and partly because we're using statewide data. And it all it is a summary of the behavior of individual law enforcement agencies. And law enforcement agencies, as this study shows, police in very different ways.

In this time, especially the last few years, some departments, including the Vermont State Police, have undergone some bias training. But since these disparities have continued, do you think there's something more that needs to be done in terms of police training across the board to reverse some of these trends and some of, as you just said, the differences between different law enforcement bodies in the state?

Let me first add that Vermont State Police has also seen improvement in some of their racial disparities, so I think that the work that they're doing is effective. One of the challenges is that it's not just about bias training, but it really is, I think, fundamentally about leadership. When you have leadership that says that we will not tolerate racial bias in policing, that holds their officers accountable, that shares the data with them so that they can be more aware of their behavior, I think you're gonna see changes.

There's a few agencies in Vermont like that, not many, but I think that they're models. Also, there is evidence that certain types of policy changes will be helpful. For example, in the study we talk about pretextual stops, stops that are based on a minor traffic violation, like failing to turn on your turn signal 100 feet before a stop sign. The police often use those types of stops based on a suspicion or a hunch to get a look inside of the car.

But we find that anything that is highly discretionary and based on suspicion, disproportionately disadvantages people of color because of those negative stereotypes. So, eliminating pretextual stops as a policy could be one of the tools to help us move forward. Sharing the data with officers could also be a possible mechanism for helping officers become more aware of their behavior.

One of your findings was that all Vermont drivers are stopped at a rate much higher than the national average, about three times higher, and that's regardless of race. Do you have a sense of why police in Vermont stop drivers at such a high rate?

No, it's such an interesting finding. For some, it may be revenue generation, because we also see extraordinary differences across agencies in the percentage of stop drivers that get a citation. For some agencies, 90% of drivers stop get a citation for others, just 10-12%. Back to your point about why do we see such high stop rates in Vermont? I really don't understand that. I think it's really an important conversation.

One of the things that has happened that I think is really interesting is that Burlington has reduced stop rates substantially. There are now roughly 6,000 fewer stops per year as a result of a mandate by the former police chief, [Brandon] del Pozo, with no increase in accidents. So, with no impact on public safety.

I think really the question is what is policing for? What is traffic policing for? Is it for public safety? Is it for drug interdiction? And we should have some clarity on that.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Two Vermont Communities Embarked On Police Reform. Here's How It's Going

I'm curious, just looking broadly, what you think the next steps should be now that this data, this analysis, is in the public's eye?

Well, first, I think it would be important for the Legislature to revise the legislation to improve the quantity and quality of the data that we get. I think there needs to be some accountability for providing all of the information that is required by law. There are a variety of agencies that have a lot of missing data, which reduces the quality of the data. So that's on the data side.

But I can think of practices and policies at the agency level that would address the issue of racial disparities. But I really do think it needs to be a statewide conversation, and quite frankly, within state government, as to how to address this.

I've suggested a few things that help, that the research shows that helps, and that is, you know, ending pretextual stops, sharing the data with officers so that they can see how they compare to other officers within the same agency, for example. I think that the training piece needs to be something that the state helps provide support on, because these smaller agencies really don't have the capacity to identify trainers on implicit bias and so forth.

But I also think we need to monitor how well the training is working, or what kinds of training are working. One of the things I've learned from the implicit bias research is that long trainings once a year aren't really effective. It's really short, frequent trainings that remind officers of the potential problem of racial bias in the course of doing their work.

I also think, quite frankly, this is something that Chief [Shawn] Burke shared with me from South Burlington [Police Department], probably one of the most important kinds of trainings for officers is U.S. racial history. Many are simply unaware of the nature of racism in the United States and how it has affected us, how it has affected policing, and how it is disadvantaged people of color and in ways that has led to these negative stereotypes. I think that is a huge piece of what needs to be done.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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