When law enforcement confronts racial bias head on

The Vermont State Police has slowly and incrementally demonstrated conspicuously courageous leadership

BRATTLEBORO — In spite of Vermont's recent designation as the safest state in the nation by Yahoo Homes, events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and elsewhere across the nation have many residents of our state wondering about racial bias in our law enforcement.

Where there is scant information, we tend to fill the void with whatever the prevailing negative narrative might be.

Let me fill that void by describing how Vermont State Police (VSP) leadership has been shaping a more responsive, culturally competent agency.

More so than any other state agency, the VSP has demonstrated conspicuously courageous leadership in these areas.

* * *

A decade ago, Col. James Baker, then director of the VSP, came to my office unannounced to discuss our published study on Brattleboro's minority community perceptions of law enforcement.

Unlike other law-enforcement leadership who sought to dispute our research findings of perceived racial profiling and bias, or to challenge our research methodology, or to question the motives or credibility of our community organization, Col. Baker had another agenda.

He came to find out what we thought he could do to increase trust of minority communities with law enforcement in general and VSP in particular.

Rather than discount the experiences of people of color, he took our conversations to reflect on the agency's history and his own upbringing, biases, and prejudices.

As a result, Col. Baker brought enhanced professional development on the demographic and cultural shifts underway in Vermont, the economic imperative for addressing bias, and the role bias plays in the highly decentralized, discretionary decision-making environment of troopers in the field.

* * *

In June 2008, Col. Baker testified before the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights (VSAC/USCCR) that he had undertaken actions to address racial bias:

• Issued expectations that all people be treated with respect and dignity, and without the influence of bias.

• Adopted a non-bias policing policy;

• Installed video cameras in state police cars and required their use for all traffic stops;

• Appointed a standing committee to audit traffic stops that result in searches;

• Instituted an internal affairs process, by statute and policy, that is overseen by an advisory commission whose members are appointed by the governor;

• began an enhanced training program.

By the time the VSAC/USCCR issued its Briefing on Racial Profiling in Vermont report in August 2009, the VSP had already made significant progress toward full implementation of the report's recommendations.

* * *

When Col. Baker retired in 2009, the Department of Public Safety gave his work to reshape the agency the highest priority as evidenced by the selection of Col. Tom L'Esperence as the director.

Through continued professional development, Col. L'Esperence has been strengthening the capacity of the VSP command structure to identify bias, to teach how to discuss bias with VSP field staff, and to suggest courses of education or corrective action when bias is suspected or confirmed.

Last year, among other efforts to address cultural competency within a more diverse VSP, supervisors received training on how to recognize and address hostile work environments that might emerge over a trooper's race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

In addition, VSP has intensified community engagement activities by way of working closely with activists at Migrant Justice and community leaders and professionals associated with Project Vision in Rutland, among others.

Since 2012 Col. L'Esperence has personally led a team of his senior staff to the annual Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Conferences. These 1{1/2}-day conferences have provided state police with unprecedented access to a wide range of ethnic and racial minority community leaders from across the state.

* * *

Vermont State Police has for years led efforts to convince county and local law enforcement agencies to follow in their footsteps well before the passage of last year's legislation mandating the adoption of bias-free (or free and impartial) policies and training by all law-enforcement agencies.

For the last decade, VSP has not shied away from the issues of racial or other forms of bias and profiling. They admit that its presence among some uniformed officers and staff has a negative effect on operations as well as perceptions by community members, particularly community members of color.

However, we bear witness to the expenditure of hard- earned political capital by VSP top leadership to become a more professional and culturally competent agency. Other state agencies and municipal governments should take notice and follow the agency's lead.

Much remains to be done. However, for the last decade, VSP has been working quietly and with intention to address bias and to strengthen cultural competency throughout the organization.

And although this slow and incremental process short-circuits our socialization for instant gratification, we are convinced that the qualitative changes at Vermont State Police will lead to more substantial and sustainable free and impartial policing over the long term.

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