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Vermont Police Data Show Racial Disparities in Traffic Policing

UVM's Stephanie Seguino is photographed between two police cars on a Vermont snowy day.
The first Vermont-wide study of traffic policing and race, by UVM's Stephanie Seguino, finds key racial disparities – that vary across geography and police agency. Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist.

A new UVM study reveals notable disparities in how police officers from 29 departments across Vermont treat drivers by race.

The research finds racial disparities in traffic stops, searches, arrests and outcomes – which vary by police agency.

It is the first study of statewide traffic policing and race, covering Vermont’s largest police departments, and follows a 2014 state law requiring police to collect race data.

Blacks and Hispanics ‘oversearched,’ despite less contraband

At the state level, Black and Hispanic drivers were searched approximately three to four times the rate that White drivers were searched.

Despite lower search rates, White and Asian drivers were more likely to be caught with serious contraband leading to citations or arrests.

Among drivers stopped, Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to receive tickets than White drivers.

Given their shares of the driving population, Black and Hispanic drivers were stopped more than expected, while Asian and White drivers were stopped at rates below their shares of the driving population.

Read the full study for data on individual departments.

Exploring ‘police discretion’

“Search and hit rates are among the best available indicators of racial disparities in policing,” says UVM economist Stephanie Seguino.

“Given that Black and Hispanic drivers are searched more, but found with less contraband, it suggests police use a lower threshold of evidence for these searches,” adds Seguino, a researcher at UVM’s Gund Institute and College of Arts and Sciences. “It also points to potential inefficiencies in policing.”

The researchers recommend improvements in data collection and bias training to address the disparities, especially in areas with elevated stop and search rates.

Largest study of its kind, but more data needed

The study is the largest to date on Vermont police and race, and the first to compare data across multiple departments.

It covers the largest 29 of Vermont’s 70 police agencies – including 24 municipalities, 3 county sheriff’s departments and Vermont State Police – which provide law enforcement for the majority of the state’s population.

“Many agencies had high rates of missing data in key categories,” says co-author Nancy Brooks of Cornell University. “More work is needed to improve the quality of the data collected. That’s key to assessing and improving racial disparities in policing.”

While approximately 30 U.S. states routinely collect police traffic data by race, some states have not analyzed it – and even fewer make the information publically available.

Read the full paper, “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont,” which follows Seguino’s and Brooks’ previous work on individual police departments in Burlington, South Burlington, and the Vermont State Police.

“When it comes to police and race, the data suggests that Vermont may not be as different from other states as some might think,” Seguino says.

Download a high-rez image of Prof. Stephanie Seguino from UVM's Flickr.

Listen to the press conference:

Agencies included in the analysis:

  • Addison County Sheriff
  • Barre City
  • Barre Town
  • Bennington
  • Brandon
  • Brattleboro
  • Bristol
  • Burlington
  • Colchester
  • Essex
  • Grand Isle County Sheriff
  • Hinesburg
  • Manchester
  • Middlebury
  • Milton
  • Northfield
  • Randolph
  • Rutland
  • Rutland County Sheriff
  • S. Burlington
  • Springfield
  • St. Albans
  • St. Johnsbury
  • University of Vermont (UVM)
  • Vergennes
  • Vermont State Police (VSP)
  • Williston
  • Winooski