VT police data: possible bias?

Bill+Lippert

Courtesy Seven Days

Bill Lippert

Police traffic stop data from Lamoille County shows higher rates of ticketing for Black, Hispanic and Asian drivers than for those identified as white.
An analysis by Basement Medicine of racial data collected in 2018 by law enforcement agencies across Lamoille County showed that people of color experienced a 7 percent higher ticketing rate than white drivers. People of color received tickets 34 percent of the time they were pulled over, whereas people identified as white received tickets 27 percent of the time. In other words, people of color were 25 percent more likely to be ticketed than white drivers.
This data came from the county’s four policing agencies: the Vermont State Police, Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department, Morrisville Police Department and the Stowe Police Department. In total, law enforcement stopped 5,020 people identified as white and 211 people identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander or Native American. Among people of color, Black drivers made up the largest group, with a total of 124 stopped countywide in 2018.
Gregory Petrics, associate professor of mathematics and data science at Northern Vermont University-Johnson, said that the discrepancy in ticket rates between white and people of color rivers is more than can be explained by random variation, but that he would not say the data necessarily indicate racial bias.
However, the disparities in ticketing rates fit within a statewide context of unequal traffic stop outcomes. VTDigger reported in August that state police data collected statewide in 2019 show Black and Hispanic drivers receiving tickets at higher rates than whites.
The Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department and the Vermont State Police drove the disparities in Lamoille county stop outcomes. However, the numbers from each agency were too small to be reliably evaluated individually.
The number of people of color who were searched or arrested was so small countywide that there was no meaningful way to compare rates with those identified as white.
Sergeant Garth Christensen of the Morrisville Police Department said that officers are not allowed to ask the race or gender of someone they have stopped. What race shows up in the data, Christensen said, is based on a visual assessment by the officer.
2018 is the most recent year data are available from the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, the state organization tasked with collecting the stop data from local law enforcement agencies. The Legislature mandated the collection of racial data during police stops in 2014.
Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, was the lead sponsor of the bill that mandated the collection of traffic stop data. Lippert said in an interview Sept. 17 that the bill originated in work conducted by a group of law enforcement agencies and people of color in the Burlington area.
There were many anecdotal stories of racial bias during traffic stops circulating in the minority community, Lippert said, but that at the time, there were no data on the subject. “No one at the time had any data to demonstrate that there was any disproportionate pulling people over, or disproportionate action once somebody was pulled over,” he said. “This voluntary group of law enforcement and people of color community in Burlington said we need data in addition to the stories.”
There were multiple dimensions to the law, but one was collecting the reason for initiating a traffic stop, the race and gender of the person being stopped, and the outcome, whatever that might be.
Lippert said that, initially, it was the feeling of both the people of color involved in crafting the collection procedures and that of the police departments that it would be best not to ask the race of drivers during traffic stops.
It has not been easy getting all agencies in the state to report as the law requires, Lippert said. “Initially,” he said, “many of the local law enforcement agencies did not comply with reporting the data.” The data was submitted incomplete or unusable, and in some cases, not at all. “It took us a period of years, coming back to this year after year, I’d say for a period of at least four years, and repassing another requirement about how the data had to be collected – trying to finally get all of law enforcement to provide data,” Lippert said.
“For me,” he said, “it’s an embarrassment that there are still issues around this all of these years later.”
Lippert said that there is an effort currently underway in the Legislature to add more serious penalties for agencies that do not properly report stop data.