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Crucial conversations

Panel discusses police bias, community relations

BRATTLEBORO—Yes, implicit bias exists and law enforcement in Vermont is no exception, panelists said during a July 27 community discussion on policing Brattleboro.

As an example, panelists and audience members pointed to data from the Vermont State Police on its agency’s traffic stops. According to the data on the state police webpage (vsp.vermont.gov), black drivers are stopped, searched, and ticketed at rates higher than white drivers.

Panelists answered questions from the audience and highlighted efforts by law enforcement agencies to identify and combat bias.

Audience members asked about policies, said officers seem to favor some neighborhoods over others, and shared their anger and frustration at the existence of a racist society, calling to increase the number of people of color in positions of power.

Moderator Patrina Lingard of the Lingard Group LLC assembled the seven-member panel. A conversation with retired New York City police officer Jose Maldonado Jr., who is now a student at the Vermont Law School, inspired Lingard to organize the event.

Most audience members wrote their questions on cards that Lingard read to the panel.

Lingard said, “Perception is a key word.”

People arrive to situations with perceptions: of themselves, of each other, she said.

Unfortunately, people don’t always have as much information as they think they do, so their perceptions of one person, one situation spreads out and transfers to any remotely similar person or situation, she said.

“And in that perception is where bias lives,” Lingard said.

During the event, one woman stood to express her anger. This is a racist society, she said.

“[Biases] don’t come out of thin air,” she continued. “It’s all over us like a blanket.”

At the end of the evening, Shanta L. Evans-Crowley said the community was experiencing a cultural change.

“Be patient,” she said, adding that with any lifelong relationship, people experience ups and downs, but remain committed.

“We’re entering a relationship for the long term,” Evans-Crowley said.

Lurking under the surface

“Racist behavior is a whole continuum,” said Ken Williams, interim dean at the School for International Training.

Society has raised people to see some groups as better and some as worse, he said — privilege, power, and rejecting differences lurk in all situations.

“Implicit bias” means it lurks, hidden, Williams explained. People don’t know their bias exists and continues until an agency puts corrective measures in place, Williams said.

Williams told the audience that he grew up in the Caribbean.

Implicit bias runs deep, he said. As an example, he pointed to conversations with students of color who had either immigrated or were studying abroad in the United States. Williams said he and the students realized that they looked down their noses at African-Americans.

Brattleboro is interesting, Williams said, in that people of color live among white people, and white people seem to respond to the pain people of color routinely experience, he said.

But, he continued, few people of color hold positions of power or sit in decision-making roles.

They should, Williams said.

White people need to stand up and say this matters because most people of color feel they don’t matter, Williams said.

Recognize people’s pain and engage, he continued — ask people of color what pain they experience and why.

When an audience member asked how the community could remove police from institutions like schools, Williams said it could prove difficult.

The police were called into institutions because other parts of the system failed, he said. It requires long-term planning, he said.

Maldonado said that many of the officers he worked with in New York City started their jobs unprepared for the poverty and trauma they would encounter.

The easy solution to finding kids hanging outside at night is to tell them to go home, Maldonado said. But when a kid lives in a poverty-stricken building where there is violence, or feces in the hallway, they don’t want to go home, he said.

“There needs to be some empathy there,” Maldonado said.

On the other side of the coin, Maldonado said, officers often walk into the unknown. They worry for their own safety.

Most traffic stops pose no threat to the officer, he said. “But that one time, you have to be prepared for if it goes wrong.”

Navigating a two-way street

Dan Davis, a former Windham County State’s Attorney now in private practice, referenced Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown, saying that the police are the “dumping ground” for society’s problems.

Brown has given many statements since the shooting of five Dallas police officers during a protest last month. The Associated Press filmed Brown on July 11 — a video that appeared on nytimes.com — where Brown said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.”

“Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” Brown continued. “Not enough mental health funding — let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding — let’s give it to the cops.”

Bringing the discussion back to Vermont, Davis said, “It is a crime the way the state of Vermont treats people with mental health issues. You shouldn’t be putting people with mental health issues in jail.”

What happens nationally affects people locally, Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said.

“One bad interaction [with police] impacts generations,” he said.

Fitzgerald grew up in Brattleboro and returned to the area after more than 20 years in the Marine Corps.

“We are the face of government,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s something we just have to accept.”

“Knowledge is power,” Fitzgerald continued, saying that if a community member has a question for the Brattleboro police, then that person is free to ask the department their question.

In response to one question, Fitzgerald said, yes, the Brattleboro Police Department complied with Vermont statute aimed at reducing bias among law enforcement agencies.

The statute requires agencies to collect data of police interactions with civilians, including the civilians’ race as a way to identify biased policing. The statute also requires agencies to adopt a fair and impartial policing policy.

Fitzgerald said the department instituted such a policy six years ago. Data collected by the department is available to the public free of charge upon request, he said.

In Fitzgerald’s opinion, changing how a policing agency does business extends beyond creating policy.

“You can’t write policies and procedures and change the department,” he said. “You have to change the [department’s] culture.”

For example, he said, most interactions between police and community happen when something is wrong, Fitzgerald said. In response to that reality, BPD hosts events in neighborhoods, like Coffee with a Cop, to foster stress-free relationships.

In response to a question from Williams about reducing bias, Fitzgerald answered that officers receive monthly counseling with their supervisor. The supervisor pulls a random sample of the officer’s traffic stops and analyzes them with the officer for bias.

“It stares you right in the face,” Fitzgerald said. Once a bias is identified, Fitzgerald said, the supervisor takes corrective action.

Officers also receive ongoing anti-bias training, he said.

Vermont State Police Det. Trooper Andrew Todd works out of Rutland.

From the perspective of someone who had been a young black man in Western Massachusetts, Todd said, police did not have a good reputation. He joined law enforcement because he wanted to change policing.

“If you’re willing to do the right thing, and speak up and do the right thing, you can change something,” Todd said. “All our communities affect all of us.”

Todd reminded audience members that if they don’t get the help they need from an officer, community members should ask to speak to a supervisor. Keep going up the chain of command if necessary, he said.

“Yes, officers use implicit bias, it exists,” Todd said.

That’s one reason for collecting data, he said, stating that data doesn’t show what people want to see — it shows what is.

Todd noted that often a trooper’s fairness in the eyes of a driver hinged on whether that trooper hands out a ticket or a warning.

White drivers have told Todd he stopped them only because they were white and he was black, he said.

Dismantling racism is “easier said than done, that’s why we’re all here,” Todd said. “The road goes both ways.”

It’s personal because it’s real

Orlando Daniel Alvarez started his career in law enforcement and now works with the Vermont Department for Children and Families.

“Racism started when the white settlers landed on this continent and did what they did to the Native Americans,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said he didn’t know if it’s “a lack of character” or “different morals” in today’s society, but “we’re teaching our kids to be racist.”

He reminded people that citizens can call for a public forum with officers and “force” the officers to talk and to listen.

Alvarez called for more people of color to hold decision-making power.

“[People of color] who know the real history of this country,” he said.

Shela Linton, an organizer with the Vermont Workers’ Center and co-founder of the Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, spent most of her time as a panelist questioning the other panel members.

In response to Davis’ comments about placing people with mental health issues in prison, Linton asked the panelists, “as gatekeepers” what they had done or would do to address the system’s problems.

Panelists who responded said they worked in a larger context and that some responsibility rested with lawmakers and the judicial system.

Linton also questioned fellow panelists’ call for community members to respect officers’ safety.

Officers need to consider the safety of the community, she said. If an officer is “freaking out,” how can they create a safe environment for civilians?

She also asked how civilians could find out if an officer had a history of biased behavior.

“I’m a person who actually holds that pain,” she said.

She encouraged white people to reach out to people of color and talk to them. Not everyone has the same experiences, Linton added. “Black people hold multiple identities.”

The first step to changing the status quo is awareness, she said.

Next, people need to educate themselves about history and racism.

Step number three is to cross color and class lines and organize, Linton said.

Finally, people need to take action, she said.

“We live in a white supremacist culture, so that’s where we start,” Linton said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #369 (Wednesday, August 10, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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