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Watts: Seguino Study

Statistics indicate that racial bias is still a hazard on the road to a just and equitable society.

A young Vermont woman recently was pulled over for driving too close to the yellow line. Another driver was stopped for following a car too closely; a third was for driving 26 in a 25 mile per hour speed zone. Their real crime - driving while black.

Racial disparities in policing have already lead to disastrous consequences nationally. At the very least it leads to humiliation and fear for the people stopped. And it’s also happening here in Vermont. Two years ago, a study by UVM Professor Stephanie Seguino and Cornell professor Nancy Brooks that examined 500,000 Vermont traffic stops found that black and Hispanic drivers were stopped by the police at much higher rates than white drivers. And Asian drivers were less likely to be stopped than their white counterparts.

When members of the police community questioned some aspects of the 2017 study, the researchers did further analysis and in a follow up report released just last week, Seguino says that even accounting for variables like the age and gender of the driver, or the reason for the stop, the disparities in search rates persist.

And this is important, since once a vehicle is stopped, police can request a search to look for drugs or other contraband based on objectively justifiable suspicions, such as the driver seems to be acting nervous.

The new study confirmed that black and Hispanic drivers were three to four times more likely to be searched than white drivers. And although Black and brown drivers were more likely to be searched than their white counterparts, it turns out that if you were black or Hispanic, you were half as likely to be carrying any contraband than if you were white. This suggests racial bias because the police are apparently using a lower threshold of evidence for searching black and Hispanic drivers.

These studies have led to some intense soul searching among the Vermont police. The Vermont State Police – the largest force – has taken Seguino’s work to heart – aggressively re-training their officers to recognize and reduce their own biases. Local police forces have been less open to change, resisting some of Professor Seguino’s findings and challenging the data.

This just goes to show that on the road to a truly just and equitable society, we still have a very long way to go.


Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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