Burlington Police Commission calls for independent group to investigate racial disparities

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Burlington Police Commission member Stephanie Seguino. Photo by the University of Vermont

The Burlington Police Commission commissioned an independent group to investigate the many racial disparities evident in the city’s police statistics.

In Burlington, black people make up 6.2% of the population, but 21% of police department arrests and 36% of people officers used force on, according to the city’s 2021 annual report. report on police data.

In response to these findings, the police commissioners asked the city to enter into a contract with the Center for Policing Fairnessan organization that analyzes race-related police data and advises departments on how to adjust their policies.

The group, Commissioner Stephanie Seguino said, “would help the police department better understand the sources of these disparities, but also address community concerns.”

“The debate is whether these disparities are justified or not, and we are now at an impasse,” Seguino said Tuesday during a Meet from the police station. “There is disagreement and no way forward.”

In a letter explaining its request, the city’s police watchdog pointed to several examples from the police department’s annual report that it said indicated racial bias.

When arresting people last year, Burlington police were twice as likely to detain black people as white people, the report said. Police were also half as likely to send black people to the Community Justice Center, the city’s diversion program.

Additionally, while the department has seen a decline in use of force over the past decade, instances of officers using force against black people have increased proportionally in recent years, according to data in the report.

“Racial disparities between blacks and whites in the use of force suggest that Burlington police officers view blacks as inherently threatening or dangerous,” the letter said.

The letter noted a drop in a racial disparity statistic: Burlington police did not stop a disproportionate number of black drivers in 2021.

But during those traffic stops, the letter says, officers were four times less likely to take action after stopping a black driver than a white driver. According to the commission, this could mean that cops stop black drivers without sufficient reason to do so.

In the area of ​​traffic stops, the letter referred to a disproportionate number of searches for people of color after they were stopped. Of the seven traffic stops conducted by Burlington police in 2021, only one involved a white driver, according to the letter.

According to acting police chief Jon Murad, citing the annual report 2021 and other police data, the seven actually included two white drivers, two Asian drivers and three black drivers.

Seguino, an economics professor at the University of Vermont who studies racial disparities in state policing, said during a Meet last month, it would be “naive” to believe that the proportionately higher number of arrests and uses of force against black people were all justified.

The need for outside analysis of the department’s racial disparities data wasn’t so obvious to Murad, though he agreed at Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the commission’s request with Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger. .

In a sometimes harrowing exchange with the commission, Murad challenged the idea that Burlington police are biased against black people and said the evidence presented by the commissioners was too thin to warrant bringing in an outside party to investigate. investigate the disparities.

Murad — who said he knows some members of the Center for Policing Equity’s leadership team and holds the organization in “high regard” — noted that the department already reports every use of force at monthly committee meetings. police. Stewards then have the opportunity to further examine these incidents in private.

But the commission, which is made up of Burlington residents appointed by the city council, said the department would benefit from having expert eyes examine the matter.

Commissioner Melo Grant, a vocal critic of Murad, said the department would “literally punch itself in the face” by not working with the organization.

“There’s this stubbornness to recognize and acknowledge the feelings in the community,” Grant said at the meeting. “It takes effort to understand why people feel the way they do, and that’s going to take a candid look at how certain incidents are conducted.”

“By doing this, it’s not an admission of guilt,” Commissioner Suzy Comerford told Murad on Tuesday night. “(It) can help the whole community move forward and support you in rebuilding the force.”

Police commissioners said working with the Center for Policing Equity would be free for the city, though Murad expressed concerns about the potential expense the city would incur.

In an email to VTDigger, Murad said he could not estimate the cost, but “both the fiscal cost and the opportunity costs – i.e. the effect (sic) on existing resources to do another assessment project so soon after the ANC assessment, which we have only just begun to address and integrate into our reconstruction efforts – would be important considerations.

If Burlington heeds the police commission’s recommendation, it won’t be the first time the city has asked a third party to review its policing practices.

The city commissioned an assessment of its police department, dubbed the “CNA Report,” as part of its police reform efforts in June 2020. After review by a city council subcommittee, that report is expected to be discussed by the full board this year. .

Councilman Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, said working with the Center for Policing Equity would push the department to address racial disparities in its policing statistics — something Magee suggested he didn’t want to do at this time.

“Chief Murad doesn’t really recognize that there is racial bias in the department,” Magee told VTDigger. “We can look at study after study that shows that’s just not true.”

Magee echoed members of the police commission in suggesting the outside review could help recruit officers for the department, as the size of the force has shrunk since the city council’s 2020 efforts to reform the police. (Magee and the council also voted this week to launch a three-year, $1.2 million “rebuild plan” that aims to recruit and retain more police officers.)

“This is how we come back to building community trust in the department,” Magee said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the number of traffic stop searches the department conducted in 2021 and the race of those searched.

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