WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Police in Hartford, Woodstock and Royalton stopped Black drivers at rates that rival the statewide average of the percentage of Black drivers who are pulled over, according to a study released last month by the University of Vermont.
Still, stops by Hartford and Woodstock police significantly exceeded the rate that would ordinarily be expected given the number of Black people living in the two towns.
The study, by UVM economics professor Stephanie Seguino, analyzed traffic stops by race in nearly 80 departments across Vermont from 2015 to 2019 and found that police pulled over Black drivers in 3.6 percent of all traffic stops over the five-year span. That number includes externally generated stops, which are stops based on information from someone other than the officer making the stop, like “be-on-the-lookout calls,” according to the study. The study did not list data for DUI or immigration checkpoints.
Hartford matched the 3.6 percent rate for stops with Black drivers, while Woodstock and Royalton both came in at 3.2 percent.
However, Seguino noted, Woodstock has more tourists than many other towns in Vermont, which may affect the data by increasing the number of Black drivers on the road compared with those living in the town.
The study also looked at the rate at which other drivers of color are stopped, as well as the rate at which different drivers are searched, ticketed and arrested. Finally, it looked at the reason different drivers are stopped compared with their race.
“We are hopeful these data will be useful to law enforcement themselves as a way to address any potential bias in policy,” Seguino wrote in an email last week. “The data is a way for law enforcement to hold a mirror up to themselves.”
The remainder of the Upper Valley police departments that were included in the four-year study had rates of traffic stops of Black drivers that were significantly lower than the statewide rates.
That includes smaller towns, like Thetford, where Black drivers made up only 1 percent of the traffic stops, and larger towns, like Springfield, where 1.5 percent of the traffic stops involved Black drivers. Elsewhere in the Valley, Windsor’s rate of traffic stops of Black drivers was 1.7 percent of all drivers, Bradford was 0.3 percent, Fairlee was 1.9 percent, Randolph was 1.3 percent and Weathersfield was 1.1 percent. Norwich’s rate came out to 0.7 percent but that was only over the course of one year, according to the study.
Orange County’s rate was 0.9 percent while Windsor County’s was 1.3 percent.
One of the key elements that researchers included in the study was a racial disparity index, which found that in many cases, the percentage of Black drivers stopped exceeded the percentage Black drivers in town.
“In our study we compare the ... Black share of stops divided by the Black share of the driving population,” Seguino wrote. “What we find is that those agencies that have the widest disparities ... are from all over the state.”
A chart of 23 towns with the largest disparities included two from the Upper Valley: Hartford and Woodstock.
In Hartford, the rate of drivers stopped who were Black was more than double the rate of the driving population that was Black, according to the disparity index. In Woodstock, the rate was more than triple. Those findings do not include externally generated stops.
The village of Bellows Falls, Vt., about 30 minutes south of Windsor on Interstate 91, had the worst disparity rate, with stops of Black drivers more than quadrupling the percentage of Black drivers in town.
Former Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten, whose last day with the department was Feb. 5, addressed the study in an email last week. He wrote that he acknowledges there are “feelings of mistrust in policing practices” among people of color who drive and among community members.
Hartford, at the intersection of interstates 89 and 91, is planning additional implicit bias training, Kasten said, adding that the police department is completing a broader in-house review, looking for “other disparities in police activity.”
Kasten said the department has also worked with the Crime Research Group in Montpelier to complete a “more detailed Hartford traffic stop data analysis and test.” The results will be the first step toward identifying and working to correct biases within the department, he said.
“We also recognize that each community is different, meaning that benchmarking of data between communities in Vermont or the Upper Valley is unique to the geographic, transportation, commercial, educational systems in the area analyzed,” Kasten wrote.
Calls and emails seeking comment from Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish were not returned last week.
The study follows an earlier report Seguino published in 2017 titled “Driving while Black and Brown in Vermont,” which analyzed fewer towns but showed similar results. Looking at one year of data ending in 2016, Seguino found that Hartford’s rate of Black drivers pulled over was 3.3 percent of the total traffic stops — slightly less than the most recent five-year study.
The increase since the previous study is not unique to Hartford. Seguino wrote that the number of traffic stops statewide has increased in recent years, and that the number of Black drivers pulled over has increased more than the number of white drivers.
Even though the numbers reflect an increase in Black drivers pulled over, Springfield Police Chief Mark Fountain said police departments across Vermont have been increasingly focused on combating issues of racial profiling over the past few years.
“For nearly five years, every law enforcement agency in Vermont has adopted and has policies that prohibit racial profiling and policing,” he said. Fountain added that if someone makes a complaint about racism or racial profiling within his own department, it will be “immediately reviewed and, if necessary, investigated.”
He said that all officers in his department are also required to undergo training about racial profiling and implicit bias.
“I’m very confident that I do not have any of my officers partaking in that,” he said.
But Lia Ernst, senior staff attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is more to be done.
“These studies show us that we continue to have a problem,” Ernst said in an interview, discussing the issue of racial profiling.
An officer’s reason for pulling over a driver often is the root cause of the disparity, she said. In many cases, Black drivers are pulled over more than white drivers for “equipment violations” — the proverbial broken taillight — a reason that is often a pretext to “ask questions, probe and look around,” Ernst said.
The study found 27 percent of stops involving Black drivers listed equipment violations as the reason, while it was 23 percent both for white drivers and for drivers across all recorded ethnicities.
She added that one of the questions this and earlier studies raise is “whether police officers should be in the business of stopping drivers for equipment violations.”
The study showed that, across the state, traffic stops resulted in tickets for about a third of drivers pulled over, regardless of race. The number of stops resulting in an arrest for violation was 2 percent for Black drivers and 1.2 percent for white drivers. The statewide search rate was also higher for Black drivers, with 3.1 percent of stops resulting in a search versus 1 percent for white drivers. Out of those searches, police found contraband on 67.8 percent of Black drivers and 71.7 percent of white drivers.
The ACLU of Vermont has drafted a 10-point plan to “reimagine policing in Vermont,” which in part looks at ways to cut down on instances of racial profiling by removing police presence from schools and limiting officers’ involvement in low-level offenses.
“A once-annual implicit bias training is not going to cut it,” Ernst said. “It’s a lifetime of work to undo these biases that are in the water of American culture.”