Vermont Reads: Racial Profiling

05/05/11 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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Vermont Reads 2011: "To Kill A Mockingbird"

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Trevor Whipple is the chief of the South Burlington Police Department. The department was part of a pilot project to collect race data at traffic stops.
(Wertlieb) Good morning, I'm Mitch Wertlieb. All this week VPR is taking a look at race in Vermont as part of the Vermont Humanities Council's state-wide reading program, Vermont Reads, To Kill a Mockingbird. Today we look at the criminal justice system.

Much of Harper Lee's classic novel revolves around the case of Tom Robinson, a black man charged with the rape of a white woman. The narrator's father, Atticus Finch is Tom's lawyer. Scout recites her father's speech to the jury in which he says much of the state's case has been built on the assumption that the jury will be prejudiced and he appeals to their greater moral sense.

(Excerpt) "You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women - black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who never looked upon a woman without desire." 

(Wertlieb) In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is convicted. The issue of whether or not justice is color-blind has long been debated in this country. Many people of color in Vermont say are stopped more frequently by police officers, and are targets for racial profiling.

But is racial profiling happening in our police departments? For years no one knew, because unlike other states, police departments did not track race data. But now a pilot project aims to find out.

(South Burlington police station...phone ringing)

(Wertlieb) The radio crackles to life as officers on patrol check in with the dispatcher at the South Burlington police department.

Some of those calls are from officers making traffic stops. South Burlington is one of four Chittenden County police departments that voluntarily recorded data in 2009 about the people they stopped, and now it's routine to do so.

Police Chief Trevor Whipple says that practice became a priority shortly after he arrived.

(Whipple) "There had been a meeting called it seems just weeks after I got here to address concerns about the relationship between law enforcement and the community of color. So we wanted to do something to talk about that. And to really put it on the target to say, ‘We need to work together, and figure out a plan to address this.' Whether it be real or perceived, either way it's a problem."

(Wertlieb)  But is racial profiling actually happening? Northeastern University took the first -year of information from the South Burlington police, along with Burlington, Winooski, and the University of Vermont, and came back with a somewhat confusing answer:

The report said there was no evidence racial profiling was taking place, but that it is possible it was happening.

Jack McDevitt is the director of Northeastern's Institute on Race and Justice. He says the study was equivocal because while nonwhite drivers weren't stopped more, they were searched more, than white drivers.

The problem is the sample size of the survey. More than 13,000 stops were recorded, and out of those, there were only 175 searches, which McDevitt says is too small a sample from which to draw a reliable conclusion. He says that drew questions from the four agencies involved in the study.

(McDevitt) "The fact that there's so little searching going on in Vermont is a positive thing and when they search they tend to be searching people who have contraband on them, so they called back to sort of clarify what that was about and how much more data do we need to come to a conclusion?"

(Wertlieb) Back at the police station in South Burlington, Chief Trevor Whipple says he's eager to get the next report from 2010 data, because it will includes data from the Vermont State Police. That will give researchers a much larger sample to draw from.

But beyond hard numbers, Whipple says the situation is much better now than when he started in law enforcement in the early 1980s, getting training from the Drug Enforcement Agency:

(Whipple) "We were trained that African Americans were more probably drug traffickers than anybody else. That was one of the first things we looked for, we now know how much an error that was, so what happens is some of that past, it's very difficult to move from."

(Wertlieb) Wanda Hines has seen that mindset shift as well since she moved to Burlington in the 1960s. Hines helped form a community activist group called Uncommon Alliance holds regular meetings with local law enforcement to improve communication between minorities and law enforcement:

(Hines) "Uncommon Alliance actually became a concept in 2005 with a couple of minority community leaders coming together, mainly African-Americans and refugee and immigrant community leadership having this discussion about racial profiling."

(Wertlieb) Hines says get-togethers are especially productive because the police are there voluntarily. She says despite the confusion over the first racial profiling report, the process is being set in motion:

(Hines) "It's a means to an end, it's the beginning. We have created the capacity, something we didn't have before, a way to hold accountable local law enforcement behavior, or any perceived biased, What I'm looking forward to if anything is the report and the findings this year."

(Wertlieb) Chief Trevor Whipple is, too. And he says hopes police data will spark a community conversation about bias. He points to the high number of calls police get from store owners who report shoplifting by African-Americans, as compared to white kids in the same age group:

(Whipple) "That leads us to believe that maybe they're being scrutinized or watched at a higher rate, so the point I'm trying to make is that we need to educate our communities to look inward look at themselves, do they have their own bias and if you're a store owner do you react the same way when four African-Americans youth enter your store as you do when four white youth enter your store."

(Wertlieb) Whipple says he's guided by something his Burlington counterpart-- Chief Michael Schirling-- reminds his officers: "The police cannot," he says, "be the instrumentality of someone else's bias."

(Wertlieb) Robert Appel of the Vermont Human Rights Commission agrees. He says part of the follow-up work on the study will be going into the prison system to talk with the inmates in Vermont's prison system which is 10 percent people of color in a state that is 97 percent white.

(Appel) In Vermont because of our racial demographics because we are so almost uniformly white, I think people of color tend to stick out in communities. Now I'm not saying that's intentional, and I'm not saying it's purely law enforcement. I've learned through this work that police departments receive reports from citizens saying, "there's suspicious-looking characters hanging out in the park." Well, when you ask, "what's the criminal behavior they're engaging in? What's the basis for us to send a cruiser to find to out what's going on?" You get an answer like, "well, they're African-American teenagers, wearing baggy pants and have their hats on sideways." You know, there's no criminality involved in any of those observations. So I think police are learning to screen these intake calls to dispatchers to make further inquiry to see if their really is grounds for police intervention.

(Wertlieb) Well if we broaden out the conversation more does racial discrimination in your view continue to be a problem in Vermont?

(Appel) Yes, I hear about people of color being followed around in stores, closely attended by mall security, refusal to touch hands in exchanging change, as well as the more overt blatantly hostile discrimination that unfortunately still does occur.

(Wertlieb) It must be difficult for your organization when you get reports like the ones you're talking about which are anecdotal, when someone says I'm being followed closely in a store and it must be because I'm black or what have you, and then the more obvious kinds of discrimination in regards to things like housing, being told that an apartment is not for rent, a black person told that when clearly it is still for rent, what's the most difficult part because sometimes I would imagine, some of these complaints are not legitimate.

(Appel) Some are not obviously. Staff conduct investigations, make recommendations and our commissioners ultimately decide cases. I can't count how many times I've heard the phrase from people of color, well I got "the look."   And not being a person of color, it's really difficult for most people to understand what that look conveys. It's very difficult in a court of law to prove what that look conveys. I think the work continues to require that we broaden our view of what a Vermonter is. Vermont is certainly changing, in the Burlington schools for example, 30 percent of the students are students of color, 30 languages spoken in the Winooski High School, and I think our young people are more comfortable with the diversity they experience coming through schools, those of us who came up in a different time, and a different Vermont struggle more with our behaviors.

(Wertlieb) Robert Appel in your view is Vermont moving in the right direction, when it comes to ending racial discrimination?

(Appel) Yes, and I think an awareness like many other problems, is the first step to addressing it. I think the experience of most Vermonters doesn't reveal that they have been a victim of some form race discrimination but we have a long way to go down that road.

(Wertlieb) Robert Appel is the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

(Appel) Thank you, Mitch.

(Wertlieb) Tomorrow our series continues with a look at teaching about diversity in schools. And listen this evening during All Things Considered as VPR's Neal Charnoff goes backstage with a local production of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

For VPR News, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

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