Vermont Race Crime, Prison Data Troubling

Wislon Ring, Burlington Free Press, February 27, 2012

With its small but rapidly growing minority population, Vermont’s top law enforcement officials and lawmakers are trying to ensure the state’s African-Americans, Hispanic immigrants and other minorities don’t feel the sting of discrimination.

Yet discrimination appears to be finding its way into the actions of at least some members of Vermont’s law enforcement community, and the percentage of African-American inmates in the state’s prisons is 10 times their rate in the population, a figure that has doubled in the past decade, statistics show.

So state police are setting out to improve training to ensure that there is a legitimate reason for troopers to come into contact with minorities—and when they do, that minorities are treated the same as white Vermonters.

The Legislature is considering a bill that would require Vermont’s criminal justice system to keep detailed records of the race and ethnicity of the people who encounter the system. It’s hoped the study can help determine whether bias is at least partly responsible for the disproportionate number of African-American prison inmates.

The same bill would also require all of the state’s police departments to adopt “bias-free” policies.

The 2010 census showed 95.3 percent of Vermont’s 626,000 people are white.

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Yet thousands of refugees and others have moved to Vermont, and the same census found minorities made up 36.8 percent of the state’s new residents.

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Similar issues are seen in Iowa, which like Vermont has a small but growing number of minority residents and a black prison population whose proportion is much greater than the state’s in general, said the Rev. Keith Ratliff of the Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Police there understand the changing demographics and the risks of discriminatory behavior.

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The study of 50,000 traffic stops done by the Vermont State Police for the year ending last July found minority drivers were more likely to be stopped and ticketed and their vehicles searched than white drivers.

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“We’d like to think we are an enlightened state and in many ways we are, but if you talk to people who are members of the communities of color . . . there are numerous examples of bad experiences that you and I as white folks wouldn’t have,” state Rep. Suzi Wizowaty said. The Burlington Democrat introduced the measure now being considered that would require the criminal justice system to keep detailed records of race and ethnicity.

“The only counter to bias is looking at data and making the facts more available to your consciousness and taking into consideration the fact that you might be biased,” she said.

The same bill would also require all of the state’s police and sheriff’s departments to adopt “bias-free policing” policies designed to ensure people don’t come into contact with police because of their race or ethnic makeup. {snip}

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