Police departments across the country have come under increasing scrutiny this year. In Burlington, Vermont, a month-long encampment at a park adjacent to the city police department and nightly marches to City Hall emphasized activists’ demands for changes. While the camp has disbanded, city officials are working on policing issues. At the most recent Burlington City Council meeting, the panel heard reports on racial equity and policing issues.
University of Vermont professor of economics Stephanie Seguino has been studying and reporting on racial disparities in traffic stops by various police agencies in Vermont. During the latest Burlington City Council meeting she presented the newest data on the Burlington Police Department. She says the data found that Black drivers in the city are stopped 30 to 60 percent more than white, Hispanic or Asian drivers. “We also found that for this period of 2012 to 2019 that Black drivers are more likely than other racial groups to be arrested and in fact Black drivers are 67% more likely to be arrested. They also have a much higher probability of being searched as do Hispanic drivers. The search rate of white drivers is 1.1% but it’s significantly higher for Black drivers at 4.2%. And Black drivers are almost four times more likely to be searched than white drivers but they’re ten times more likely to be searched than Asian drivers.”
Seguino says in this latest report they assessed what would have happened if white drivers in Burlington had been treated the same as Black drivers during the 2012 to 2019 study period. “The average number of white stops per year was 3,500. Had the white drivers been stopped at the same rate of Black drivers there would have been roughly a thousand to two thousand more stops of white drivers. We can also do the same thing with search rates. So over this period of time there were 345 searches of white drivers. If they had been treated like Black drivers there would have been over 1,500 searches of white drivers. So I think it gives you some indication of the disproportionate contact with the police that drivers of color have and the concern of the community around the dangerousness, if you will, of people of color when they do have interactions with the police.”
East District Progressive Jack Hanson found the data troubling and asked Acting Police Chief Jon Murad about the department’s awareness of the data. “What other steps are being taken to try to eliminate the disparities or minimize them?”
Murad: “That’s part of an entirely ongoing process that we are in the midst of. See there is an issue here. It’s one that we need to keep working on and we need to keep thinking about as an agency. And I think that certainly 2020 and the events of this summer and now as we work with the joint committee and think about the various RFP’s that are out about how to assess the agency and what it does and what our neighbors want from public safety the answer has to be yes we are looking at all this. It’s part of an ongoing process and we want to be a part of it.”
Following the racial disparity report councilors heard from Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger on the administration’s police transformation initiative. The mayor outlined items that have become priorities in the wake of protests over the summer. “We together over the course of the summer have committed ourselves to many substantive significant processes. There’s operational and functional assessment that is really going to we think be the kind of framework for what is the Burlington Police Department going to look like and how’s it going to be resourced in the years ahead. The joint committee process, the City Council charter change committee work around reviewing the way in which our charter lays out how police disciplinary decisions are going to be made and considering changes, structural changes to that work and similar work happening at the Police Commission.”
The full Burlington City Council meeting can be viewed below.