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Chester, Vt., pays $50,000, apologizes in racial bias traffic stop case

  • A still image from the dashboard footage of Obadiah Jacobs’ traffic stop. courtesy of the Vermont Human Rights Commission report

Published: 10/19/2021 9:47:39 PM
Modified: 10/19/2021 9:55:04 PM

A Black man ordered out of his vehicle at gunpoint by a Chester, Vt., police officer more than two years ago has reached a $50,000 settlement with the town government for singling him out for the stop because of his race.

The Human Rights Commission found reasonable grounds earlier this year that the Chester Police Department engaged in illegal discrimination against Obadiah Jacobs in actions leading up to and during the traffic stop in May 2019 in response to a wanted driver report from another town.

After nearly a full day of mediation between the parties, the Chester town government agreed to pay Jacobs the $50,000 settlement and provide a public statement, which has been posted on the town’s website and includes an apology to Jacobs.

The settlement heads off a potential battle in the courts.

Jacobs, speaking Tuesday, said he hopes the settlement will send a message to other people to stand up to address wrongs.

“I thought I was going to be arrested or shot,” Jacobs said of what was going through his mind when he was ordered out of the vehicle by an officer who had drawn his firearm. “I couldn’t believe this was really happening. I didn’t know if I made the wrong move at that point if I would have a bullet shot at me. It was terrifying.”

Thomas Bixby, Jacob’s attorney, said there was never any basis for the traffic stop.

“The evidence is clear: He did nothing wrong,” Bixby said of Jacobs. “The vehicle didn’t match the description other than him being an African American.”

The town’s statement on its website is dated Oct. 1.

“The town of Chester sincerely apologizes to Mr. Jacobs, recognizing that no arrest or other action was taken as a result of the stop and that no basis was found during the stop to believe that Mr. Jacobs was engaged in illegal activities,” the statement read.

“The town of Chester wishes Mr. Jacobs the best in his future endeavors,” the statement added, “and hopes that he will feel welcome and secure whenever he has occasion to be in Chester in the future.”

The town acknowledged that it needs to improve the delivery of its public safety services, and is already reviewing and updating its policies and procedures, according to the statement.

Chester Town Manager Julie Hance could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

According to a 24-page report compiled by an investigator from the Human Rights Commission, the traffic stop in Chester stemmed from a be-on-the-lookout alert issued by the police in nearby Bellows Falls. The report stated police were seeking a Black man who had been driving a car and waved a firearm at another person in a case of road rage.

According to the commission’s report, Sgt. William Frank was traveling behind Jacobs three days later and followed him when Jacobs voluntarily pulled over. Frank turned on his cruiser light and pulled behind the vehicle, the report stated, ordering Jacobs out of the car, and the officer had his firearm drawn for about a minute.

Jacobs obeyed commands from the officer, according to the report, and agreed to a search of the vehicle. No firearms were found during the roughly 18-minute stop.

Jacobs asked what the stop was about and Frank told him, “Because yesterday or the day before… Bellows Falls coming across the bridge from New Hampshire … allegedly you waved a gun at somebody, pointed a gun at somebody,” the report said.

Jacobs replied, “No way; it could not be true.”

When Chester Police Chief Rick Cloud arrived, the report said, Frank told him Jacobs was known as a “player” in Bellows Falls and would “sling dope.”

According to the report, a check of records showed there were no prior instances for Jacobs and the Bellows Falls Police Department that involved drugs.

Chester officials had disputed the finding in the Human Rights Commission’s investigative report that Frank’s actions were based on Jacob’s race and posted its own 26-page response to its website.

The state investigator did not agree.

“Respondent’s argument that race and color was used only for identification purposes entirely ignores the record in which Sgt. Franks made assumptions about Mr. Jacobs being a drug dealer and a well-known ‘player’ in Bellows Falls without any evidence,” the report stated.

“Those stereotypes of African American men being associated with drugs and criminal activity,” the report said, “are exactly the type of stereotypes that motivate one to find ‘reasonable suspicion’ when it does not exist.”

Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said Tuesday that the settlement included other significant provisions beyond the $50,000 payment and public statement.

Those provisions include training that covers implicit bias, best practices for collecting traffic stop data, and fair and impartial policing.

“This was really important to the Human Rights Commission because currently, we have a model policy, but I’m not sure anybody is training to it,” Yang said of the fair and impartial policing provision. “It’s really important that a policy doesn’t exist just for the sake of existence.”

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