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Jim Kenyon: The Race to Stop

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 10/12/2016 12:14:07 AM
Modified: 10/12/2016 12:18:06 AM

A few summers ago while driving along I-91 North in Hartford on a Sunday afternoon, I happened to be side-by-side with a Mercedes SUV with New York license plates.

A Vermont State Police trooper who had been parked in the median pulled out behind us. I was pretty sure that neither one of us — me or the Mercedes’ African-American male driver — were exceeding the speed limit, or at least not by enough to warrant a police stop.

The trooper, who was white (97 percent of Vermont troopers are), began to follow the Mercedes.

On came the cruiser’s blue lights.

The next morning, I called the commander at the state police barracks in Bethel to find out the reason for the stop.

I provided some details: Time and place of the stop; Mercedes SUV; New York plates; African-American driver.

Shortly thereafter, the commander called back. It had been a routine traffic stop; no tickets were issued, he said. Apparently, the driver was let off with a verbal warning.

A case of DWB — Driving While Black?

I couldn’t prove it, but it certainly seemed that way. For a white trooper in a state where 95 percent of residents are white, seeing an African-American behind the wheel of an expensive luxury car from another state was by itself cause for suspicion.

Under the pretext of stopping the driver for speeding, the trooper could get a closer look at the car’s occupants and its contents. (Drug busts often start this way.)

Why bring this up now?

Racial profiling by police is getting much-deserved, and long overdue, attention these days.

On Monday, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell held a community forum at Hartford Town Hall to talk about the “role of implicit bias in interactions between law enforcement and the community.”

Sorrell, who is not seeking re-election after 19 years in office, has put together a group of public officials and community leaders from across the state to find ways to “support fair, impartial and effective policing” in Vermont.

The Hartford forum didn’t draw a big crowd with a lot to say. (I’d like to think it had something to do with the Red Sox playing a postseason game at the same time.) But it was still a worthwhile event.

If for no other reason than to hear Paula McGhee, director of diversity and inclusion at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland. McGhee is a middle-aged African-American from a small town in Tennessee that’s about the same size as Hartford.

She’s one of two African-American administrators at St. Joseph, a small private college founded in 1956. Roughly 35 percent of its students are minorities, including some from the rough-and-tumble Roxbury section of Boston.

During her short time in Vermont, McGhee said she’s gotten the feeling that “race is not something to be talked about here. People think it can be divisive.”

McGhee told Sorrell’s panel, which included U.S. Attorney Eric Miller, about a traffic stop in Rutland involving four male St. Joseph students returning from a local McDonald’s.

According to McGhee, the police officer asked, “You boys have any guns in the car?”

After the students assured the officer that they weren’t carrying any weapons, police still followed them three miles to campus. McGhee said she constantly reminds St. Joseph’s minority students to carry their college IDs when they leave the campus.

“My concern is that they will be profiled because they wear baggy pants and have their hair in locks,” she said.

Curtiss Reed, executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro, is part of Sorrell’s panel. Reed, an African-American who has lived in Vermont since 1978, told me that for many people of color the issue is: “Can I have an encounter with law enforcement that doesn’t take my dignity away?”

Not a lot to ask for.

Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten reminded the panel that “these are difficult and trying times” for police-community relations.

A key to overcoming “unconscious bias” is through ongoing training of officers, said Kasten. Since coming to Hartford last year after two decades in law enforcement in Maryland, Kasten has sent several officers to training sessions in other parts of the country to expose them to different ways of policing.

“Training costs money; training takes time,” said Kasten. “But if you shortchange training, that’s when we have problems.”

In Vermont, new state troopers and local police officers undergo 16 weeks of basic training. Of those 800 hours, only three are devoted to teaching officers about unconscious bias, Sorrell said.

Racial disparities in Vermont’s policing became more apparent when a five-year analysis of state police traffic stops was released in May. Data collected by the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research at Northeastern University showed minority drivers are stopped, ticketed and searched by troopers at a higher rate than white drivers.

But it’s not just cops. Prosecutors, judges and lawmakers deserve more scrutiny.

This summer, The Sentencing Project, a Washington nonprofit organization at the forefront of criminal justice reform, issued a report that showed Vermont was among five states where African-Americans are incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate of whites.

A telling statistic: African-Americans make up only 1 percent of the state’s overall population, but nearly 11 percent of the state’s prison population.

Sorrell’s panel expects to issue its report and recommendations to the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council in December. The public has until Oct. 28 to email comments to AGO.biasreport@vermont.gov.

There’s no excuse not to. The Red Sox season is over, and eliminating bias from our criminal justice system is important enough to demand our attention.




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