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UVM Professor Stephanie Seguino Talks About Updated Traffic Stop Report

Professor Stephanie Seguino (file photo)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Professor Stephanie Seguino (file photo)

In 2017, University of Vermont Professor of Economics Stephanie Seguino issued “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont.” The report analyzed traffic stop data by police agencies across the state.  It found significant disparities in stops and searches of Black and Hispanic drivers versus white drivers.  Seguino and her co-researchers have now published an update showing that there is still widespread racial bias in traffic stops.  Professor Seguino tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley that updating the data was motivated both by racial unrest nationally and the Vermont Legislature’s current review of policing policies.
“My fall had been planned to do these studies. But with the killing of George Floyd and with the focus on policing we thought it would be useful to release these studies on these larger agencies. We have the only people that have analyzed these traffic stop data at the state level. And with this past year's data, we would have five full years of data. And that gives us the ability to say a lot in terms of having large enough sample sizes for these larger towns.”

Bradley:  “This report from the seven communities and the Vermont State Police indicates that there hasn't been a large change in police actions since the 2017 statewide survey. Could you summarize what the findings are indicating?”

Professor Seguino:  “There has not been significant changes. It was clear to us from looking at the data that some agencies are actually not really doing a careful job of collecting the data and they may not even be using the data, using it as a management tool to understand racial disparities and try to train to eliminate those disparities. There are a couple of agencies and I think Vermont State Police is a leader in this has taken this very, very seriously. And we do see gradual declines and disparities with them. But for the other agencies I think that they did not take to heart the first report. I think there was a lot of pushback from the police. They challenged the results. But these data confirm and in some cases you can see that actually disparities have worsened since our 2017 report. I mean I think that the disparities that we see are really stark. For example at the national at the national level a national study of traffic stop data found that black drivers were searched at double the rate of white drivers. Well in some towns in Vermont, in particular Rutland, black drivers are stopped at four and a half times the rate of white drivers. We see disparities that are actually at least equal to if not greater than national studies. And so there's really a significant issue in Vermont with regard to racial disparities in policing. And one of the things that I think that people don't really think about is how we over-police people of color or under-police white people. And what would happen if whites were over-stopped to the degree that Blacks are and were over-searched and over-arrested to the degree that Blacks are? And, you know, it'd be instructive to you know ask white folks how they would feel if in fact they were subject to as much scrutiny and surveillance as folks of color. I'm just looking at, for example, the city of Brattleboro. If white drivers in Brattleboro were stopped at the same rate as Black drivers and were searched at the same rate as Black drivers there would be a 1,000% increase in searches of white drivers in Brattleboro. A thousand percent.”

Bradley:  “There were some communities that did improve.”

Stephanie Seguino:  “Vermont State Police was one and to some extent South Burlington. In places such as Burlington, Brattleboro, Bennington, Rutland things got worse actually.”

Bradley:  “Can you tell from the data what factors were affecting whether they improved or they didn't improve?”

Seguino:  “We can't tell from the data. But my colleague Nancy Brooks and I did do write an academic article after interviewing a number of police chiefs about the actions they've taken with regard to the data. There are a few things that really matter. One is that leadership is unequivocally committed to eliminating racial disparities and racial bias and that they interweave that into their institutions, that it's part of training, it's part of evaluation of officers and commanders, and that they periodically review the data and use that as a tool to inform their officers about their actions, their policing strategies to help them see, for example, when they are exhibiting biased behavior. In one particular case, for example, when there was a complaint against a law enforcement officer the agency called the law enforcement officer in showed him the video of the stop that there was a complaint about and looked at stops of other white vehicles and was very clear that the officer had a very different way of treating the black families that he stopped compared to the white families. That's the level of engagement on this issue that I think bears fruit. And we don't really see that far at least in other agencies.”

Bradley:  “Do you think beyond the police agencies that this new data might influence the debate that's going on in Vermont regarding defunding and also in the legislature where they're deliberating things like use of force and oversight of police and other policing issues.”

Seguino:  “Overall we are in a moment in which we are rethinking policing in general and I think some of our data will help shed some light in how different departments are across Vermont and be able to compare which is a more effective strategy.”

All police agencies across Vermont must submit traffic stop data by September 1st .

Professor Seguino plans to have a statewide report by the end of the year.

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