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Jim Kenyon: Data on police suspects’ race could actually help to fight profiling

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/12/2020 9:39:39 PM
Modified: 5/12/2020 9:39:32 PM

After making a traffic stop, a police officer is almost certain to ask to see your driver’s license. (Not that I speak from personal experience.)

But is it also OK for an officer to ask about your race? In doing so, is an officer showing racial bias?

At first blush, I’d say yes. But a strong argument can be made that the information is actually useful in combating racial profiling by police.

It’s among the issues that Lebanon’s recently appointed “Fair and Impartial Policing” task force will be expected to sort through in upcoming months. The task force has been charged with reviewing and recommending changes, if any, to the “Welcoming Lebanon Ordinance.”

Although the ordinance was approved by voters, 1,218-1,015, in March, the City Council has final say on how it’s written. Under Lebanon’s city charter, the council can amend the ordinance before it goes into effect on Jan. 1. The ordinance, among other things, bars Lebanon police from asking about a person’s immigration status and aiding federal officials in immigration enforcement efforts.

In recent months, Hartford, Hanover and Norwich have also adopted welcoming policies. Due to what many people, myself included, see as the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, protective measures are needed more than ever.

Lebanon’s ordinance also forbids police from collecting or retaining information on the “basis of race, ethnicity, language, religion, citizenship or immigration status.”

That’s a sticking point.

For years, Lebanon cops have collected and retained race information. Oftentimes, officers get the information by checking state motor vehicle records. But the information must still be stored in the department’s computer system.

“We want to know if any of our officers are exhibiting bias,” Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello told me in an interview. “The only way to do that is by looking at that data.”

Lebanon isn’t alone. Since 2014, law enforcement agencies in Vermont have been required to collect traffic stop data to help guard against racial profiling, which a decade ago was identified as problem with state police, in particular.

While it may be an unintended consequence, “looking at the (ordinance’s) plain language, it certainly begs the question” of whether Lebanon police can continue to collect and retain race information, Mello said.

Attorney Kira Kelley, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, has been working with Upper Valley communities on writing their welcoming policies. (The nonprofit provides legal assistance to immigrant communities.)

Lebanon is the only community where the issue of police collecting and retaining race information has come up, Kelley said. Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten told me that during traffic stops his officers enter a driver’s “perceived race” into the department’s records that track potential bias.

In a March letter to Lebanon residents, Kelley wrote, “The ordinance’s prohibition on racial profiling in no way restricts the Lebanon Police from adhering to the policy of recording the race of any individual they detain or arrest, so long as the individual’s race has nothing to do with why the officer initiated the interaction.”

On Monday, Kelley told me, the ordinance’s language probably needs to be “cleaned up.”

A job, I expect, that will fall on the task force’s seven members, who Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara nominated and his City Council colleagues approved last week.

During the meeting held via Zoom, Al Patterson, who serves on the city’s Zoning Board, phoned in to take exception to McNamara’s selection process. On a scale of 1 to 10, the mayor was “lucky to score a one in the diversity category,” said Patterson, who was a police officer in Hanover, Hartford and Windsor for 22 years before retiring in 2016. (For much of that time, he was the Upper Valley’s only black officer.)

Keysi Montas, who was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York City when he was 16, is the task force’s sole minority. Montas, the interim director of safety and security at Dartmouth College, was among three community members chosen by McNamara. (Barry Schuster, an attorney, and Diane Root, a retired minister, are the others.)

The three bring a “very balanced view” to the task force, McNamara said. He also selected City Councilors Karen Liot Hill and Sue Prentiss. The remaining two members, Devin Wilkie and Kathleen Beckett, represent the grassroots effort that fueled the petition drive to get the proposal on the March ballot.

But along with lacking racial diversity, “there’s nobody that is truly going to represent the other side of this issue,” Patterson told me on Monday.

Like many opponents of welcoming ordinances, Patterson is worried that by flouting immigration laws, the city could lose federal funds. “Nobody is thinking about the ramifications,” Patterson said.

As I see it, the task force has a couple of challenges. It can’t have a repeat of what happened last month in Hanover, where the Selectboard pulled what amounted to a bait-and-switch.

After lengthy talks, the town added a last-minute clause to the proposal stating any portion of the ordinance “need not” be implemented if the Selectboard believes that it conflicts with state or federal law.

“They passed it just so they could say they have a pro-immigrant ordinance,” said Kelley, a 2011 Hanover High School graduate.

The Lebanon task force also needs to avoid the ugliness that marred the Hartford debate, where both sides resorted to shouting and offensive name-calling at public meetings.

Montas, who was a cop in New Mexico for four years, isn’t worried. “As a police officer, I’ve been called every name in the book,” he said. “We need to give each other a chance to be heard. The more we listen to each other’s perspectives, the more we learn.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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