BURLINGTON — Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan acknowledges that every person, even a law-enforcement official, carries inherent biases. Meanwhile, the Burlington Police Department  swears by its “bias-free” policing policy. How do those two notions co-exist?
Answer: with difficulty. As Vermont’s minority populations expand, citizens are complaining with increasing fervor about being racially profiled by local cops. On Wednesday, May 23, the former got together with officials from Burlington’s police department and city council. Two Vermont reps and the executive director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission  joined them. About 50 people showed up, roughly one-quarter of them newly arrived immigrants and established local residents of color.
“Talking about the issue of race is a complex, sensitive, emotional issue,” cautioned Donovan, the evening’s moderator, by way of introduction. The forum represents the latest chapter in an ongoing — and strained — dialogue between Vermont law enforcement and the minority communities it serves. The prosecutor conceived the event in response to an April 1 Burlington Free Press op-ed  in which Hal Colston, director of the Burlington nonprofit NeighborKeepers , recounted an experience of “driving while black.”
Several black attendees, both African and African-American, suggested that the forum was just an empty gesture. Hussein Liban, a 26-year-old immigrant from Somalia, has lived in Vermont for three years. Liban sat quietly for most of the evening before standing to declare, “The system itself is racist, and you have to believe that if I applied for the same job [as a white person], I might not be the right person to get the job . . . so what can you do about that?”
Haskell Garrett, a board member of the Vermont Coalition for People of Color and a frequent voice on the topic, offered a historical critique. Garrett, 62, has lived in Burlington’s Old North End since 1990; he estimates having participated in some half-dozen similar community forums in the last 17 years. “There [are] clearly disparities all around the place,” he said. “I mean, there is data, all kinds of data. We are the most studied group of people. If someone comes up to me with another survey about what it’s like to be African-American . . . We’ve had these conversations before . . . What generally comes out is, who’s going to be accountable? How do you measure what you say you’re going to do?”
Some race-related Vermont statistics do exist. Between 1991 and 2006, the percentage of African-American men incarcerated in Vermont prisons rose from 2.3 to 8.4 percent. A 2002 census determined that African-Americans accounted for 0.7 percent of Vermont’s population. But a 2000 study revealed that Green Mountain police were arresting African-Americans at a rate seven times higher than other Vermonters.
Since 2000, various state and local agencies have taken steps to address racial discrimination. In 2002, the BPD adopted its prized “bias-free” policing policy. A 2003 study by the Norwich-based Center for Justice Research  examined correlations between race and crime in Vermont. That year also saw the introduction of a house bill that would have created a task force to study statewide racial disparity.
But each of those efforts had its flaws. It’s difficult to measure the results of BPD’s “bias-free” policing policy, since Vermont doesn’t record racial statistics for traffic stops. The 2003 study was a mere three-page “pilot.” And the task-force legislation? Never escaped committee.
So, does Donovan’s recent forum represent winds of change, or just more hot air? Perhaps a little of both, judging by the comments of community members who attended. Jacob Bogre, 35, president of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV), said he feared language barriers impeded communication between newly arrived immigrants and BPD officers. He proposed the creation of a citizen advisory committee to help keep the police department on its toes.
Mary Wilson of the New North End recounted a 2005 incident in which undercover policemen stopped her teenage sons — apparently without just cause. Wilson said she considers herself a conscientious parent, but worries for children whose parents don’t speak out against such acts of “institutionalized racism.”
Wilson moved to Burlington from Philadelphia a year and a half ago. She characterized Vermont as a place with “a lot of thinking people” who were “very analytical.” But she emphasized that she has not observed much “action” being taken on racial disparity by Vermont officials.
“We’re having a conversation,” she said in a soft, semi-mocking voice, as illustration of Vermont’s touchy-feely treatment of racism.
In response, State’s Attorney Donovan countered that he, along with Vermont Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington) and newly elected Burlington City Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4), who is also a state representative, plan to draft legislation that would address the issue.
“I mean, I think that’s action,” Donovan noted, nodding to Lorber and Wright at the forum.
The following morning, Lorber contacted Seven Days to report that the “ball is rolling” on racial profiling legislation. Asked to elaborate, he said he’d already contacted the Vermont ACLU, the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the state legislative council — the body of lawyers that drafts new legislation — about a bill for next year’s session. The bill would likely rework Vermont’s motor-vehicle policy to enable the state to collect data on race through the DMV. In theory, that would allow for statistically significant tests on racial profiling in Vermont.
Bogre of AALV questions that approach. He says his organization will support any changes to DMV policy that encourage motorists to “behave better.” But he insists that race data shouldn’t be collected. “[That] is already racism,” Bogre notes.
After the forum, when all the participants had filed out onto North Avenue, Hal Colston stood chatting in the doorway of the conference room. He looked weary after some two hours of discussion but was still gesturing forcefully. A prominent advocate for race-data testing, Colston called the forum “the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.” He added, “We need to have more allies, black and white, helping to bridge the relationship gap that we need so sorely, so [that] when we have community policing, [it will] go to a much deeper level.”
Colston let his hands fall. “Then, as people of color,” he said, “we may think differently about people in uniform.”