Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad on Tuesday defended his department from yet another assertion that his officers use racial bias for their traffic ticketing duties.
At a Police Commission Meeting, Murad commented about a professor who brought up the issue of ticketing biases. The chief said officers typically do not know the race of the driver during stops.
“The majority of the time the officer doesn’t know the identity of that driver,” Murad said. “That is, you are seeing a car behave in a certain way, not a driver behave in a certain way.”
Sociology professor Neil Gross of Colby College, located in Maine, stated over Zoom that racial profiling is a problem and all police departments should address it head on. Gross said he wants reforms to be initiated from within the department, but not necessarily through training.
“For me, when it comes to solving these kinds of problems, the solution is organizational, not training,” he said. “The idea is can sergeants put pressure on officers to reduce these disparities. Right? Do something different. This is not OK. Change your behavior. Why are you making all these stops? Those kinds of things. And to do that you need to have organizational incentives — their feet have to be held to the fire.”
Murad said instead of focusing so much on who’s getting pulled over, it is better to watch for discrepancies in what happens next. He said what the department can do is try to ensure that drivers of any race or background are given equal treatment — for example, when it comes to suspending licenses.
“What we find is when we remove suspended licenses from the picture, we actually issue tickets less often to drivers of color — not in 2020, but that was the case in 2019 and 2018,” the chief said.
He added that when it comes to issuing tickets for a suspended license, there is no room for discretion by the issuing officer.
The comments echo statements by Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier. In addition to saying that officers cannot typically tell who is in a car during traffic duties, he said it’s even more the case after dark. He said racial-profiling data on tickets issued at night is therefore not relevant. Bombardier also notes that multiple tickets can be issued per stop, which is another factor that can skew data collection and analysis.
Gross responded that even if Murad feels his department is not seeing apparent evidence of racial bias in ticketing practices, that doesn’t mean the department should not take up additional efforts to make the numbers more equitable.
“I think that in a small agency there aren’t these dramatic differences [in ticketing data] across shifts as you mentioned. But you know, I think there can still be incentives and structures in place that can be effective.”
The full Burlington Police Commission meeting can be viewed here.