New traffic data compiled by a local activist group shows more Hispanic and black drivers are getting tickets in Vermont, but police maintain that motorists are getting pulled over for their actions, not their race.
The new database posted at JusticeForAll-VT includes over 700,000 traffic stops between 2010 to 2018. Racial justice activists say it shows black and Hispanics are more likely than whites to get pulled over.
The calls for data collection regarding traffic stops and race largely stemmed from a UVM study called “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont,” which investigated police racial bias. The study, released in January 2017 by economics professor Stephanie Sequino, alleged that police are pulling over minorities at a rate disproportional to the general population.
The new data posted at JusticeForAll is searchable by each department. So far, not all departments have shared data. The collection is the result of the 2014 mandate Act 193.
“Vermont Act 193, 2014 requires all law enforcement agencies to collect traffic stop race, gender and age data,” the Justice for All webpage states. “The location of data from by the 79 agencies is largely unknown and the data are incomplete, inconsistent and fails the essence of the purpose of the law. The purpose of the data collection was to address what we know to be systemic racism.”
It continues that the purpose of the collection is to allow communities to see how their department is pulling over and issuing tickets. Ultimately, the activist group believes in “holding law enforcement accountable” for disproportionate stops and searches.
The collection is called the Statewide Race Traffic Stop Data Dashboard.
State Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, wants to expand data collection throughout the criminal justice system. Her bill, H.284, would require the Departments of Judiciary, Department of Corrections, and state attorneys to share demographics.
Robin Joy, director of the Crime Research Center based in Montpelier, told True North that there are problems with collecting and analyzing the demographics of ticketing data.
“One thing that we learned is a lot of times police departments, when they make an arrest for a DUI as a result of a traffic stop, they aren’t filling out the ticket as a stop,” she said.
Joy said police are now being encouraged to fill out all the data, but the implementation still isn’t perfect.
Another problem, according to Joy, is duplications.
“If I get pulled over and I get a ticket for driving with a suspended license or whatever, and I get a ticket for speeding, I’m recorded twice, and it looks like it’s two stops,” she said.
Yet another issue is state police are trained to only count contraband found on the driver as a traffic violation; if it’s found on someone else, that it’s recorded differently.
Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier told True North the data needs to be thoroughly understood before conclusions are made.
“If you really want to be fair to everyone involved, you have to drill down into the tickets,” he said. ” … Face value is a good start, but when face value makes you question something, you need to really drill down into those tickets and see what’s going on.”
For example, Bombardier said motor vehicle stops are always going to be fewer than tickets issued, which results in the duplicates issue.
“That’s gonna skew your numbers, but technically that’s just one motor vehicle stop,” he said.
Bombardier added that certain people in town might already have a reputation with the police, for example, of not having a license. Every time an officer sees that person driving, he or she is going to get pulled over. This also skews the numbers.
“These are people of all races, all nationalities, and all color,” he said. “These people get more tickets because the officers know them.”
He said if someone really wants to catch racial bias in ticketing, first thing is to see if the tickets issued in the daytime are a consistent demographic with the tickets issued at night, when it’s nearly impossible to see who’s driving.
“Unless you are downtown with all the street lights on, you can’t tell who’s driving,” he said.
Winhall Police Chief Jeff Whitesell says that in a state with about a 2 percent minority population and lots of tourism and non-Vermonters visiting or passing through, folks should be hesitant to draw conclusions.
“I don’t think it is a fair and accurate way of determining if our stops have any kind of race-basis,” he said.
Whitesell said it’s particularly off base when it comes to pulling people over who are suspected of more serious crimes, such as transporting drugs from out of state. Data from such stops is unlikely to represent Vermont.
“We don’t have any control over what race, color or creed is dealing with drugs,” he said. “These folks are coming from major metropolitan areas.”