Raising the standards

The Windham County Sheriff’s Office Fair and Impartial Policing policy ‘intersects with complex, nuanced, and important issues that we need to address appropriately’

NEWFANE — To the people of Windham County:

There is an old saying: “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”

I'm proud and pleased that the culture at the Windham County Sheriff's Office for over a decade has been to embrace humanity, including around issues such as equity, implicit and explicit bias, and fair and impartial policing.

Our department's mission is to provide effective, ethical, and affordable policing. We have championed a model of community policing which embraces the need for the public to be involved with our work. We need all people, regardless of immigration status, to feel secure when reporting issues that impact the safety of the community.

We are aware of and appreciate the proposals brought before the towns by No Más Polimigra as the organization elevates the community's voice in support of our community policing model. We have been open to the discussion and evolution of our Fair and Impartial Policing policy.

We've engaged in discourse with the Windham County Sheriff's Advisory, selectboards, town managers, lawmakers, researchers, law enforcement agencies and associations, the ACLU, Migrant Justice, No Más Polimigra, the Attorney General's Office, members of the Racial Disparities in Policing committee, the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, the Vermont Executive Director for Racial Equity, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, insurance carriers, and members of the public.

This policy intersects with complex, nuanced, and important issues that we need to address appropriately.

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Below are some hurdles that have been identified as part of the proposed policy changes with the above entities. Each of these points has both potential and real consequences that affect the services we provide:

• Some proposed language may violate state law.

• Some proposed language may violate federal law.

• Fewer than 10 percent of agencies in Vermont have adopted this language, creating a patchwork of expectations across the state

• The VCJC, which has engaged a broad group of stakeholders, is in the process of updating the model policy. No Más Polimigra's proposed language is included in their consideration.

• Finally, the standard concern of all policy change: preventing unintended outcomes.

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As I review and update our Fair and Impartial Policing policy, a question I begin with is, “What issues have occurred that we are we trying to solve?”

In the report “Trends in Racial Disparities in Vermont Traffic Stops, 2014-19” (Seguino, et al.), one of the measures used by the report for determining biased policing included the analysis of a disparity index (DI), where anything over 1 indicates a greater likelihood of a reported population to be stopped.

Agencies that have since adopted No Más Polimigra's proposed changes - including Brattleboro (1.6 DI), Burlington (1.74 DI), Hartford (2.63 DI), South Burlington (2.07 DI), Winooski (3.33 DI), and Addison County Sheriff's Office (1.16 DI) - had disparity indexes greater than 1. The Windham County Sheriff's Office had a 0.28 DI.

I am not aware of, nor have I been provided any examples in which a Windham County Sheriff's deputy has exercised or acted in any of the ways suggested by No Más Polimigra's campaign - I would be horrified if something like that was occurring in the department I'm responsible for.

Despite no identifiable examples, we continue our work to improve the policy. In addition to the regular operational demands of our agency, we've worked on our Use of Force Policy as required by the Legislature/Governor (revised 2021), our Body Worn Camera Policy as required by the Legislature/VCJC (revised 2022), and modification of employment practices related to COVID-19 (revised 2022). We will again revise our Fair and Impartial Policing Policy once it is finalized by the VCJC.

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It is important to underline the actions of the Windham County Sheriff's deputies over the last several years. For at least the last eight years, the Windham County Sheriff's Office has not:

• been involved in any civil immigration enforcement.

• shared information with, nor contacted, federal immigration authorities regarding any investigation.

• found any indicators of explicit or implicit bias enforcement in its traffic stop and race data reports.

• conducted any border enforcement.

• found any data suggesting that we provided federal immigration officials access to people in our custody.

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Our traffic stop and race data reporting is made publicly available on our website. A few things can be garnished from that:

• Minority populations are stopped by our department so infrequently that it falls below the thresholds for statistical significance.

• Traffic stop data shows deputies enforcing our stated objective toward reduction of fatal crashes targeting speed, impaired driving, distracted driving.

• There are no indicators of implicit or explicit bias that have been identified within the department.

• There are no indicators of bias relating to searches.

My predecessor, Sheriff Keith Clark, and I have adopted policies and training initiatives well before state mandates as part of our commitment to progress, best practices, modernization, and professionalization of law enforcement in Windham County and Vermont.

Our current policy conforms to the Vermont's model policy and raises the standards. It was most recently approved by the Attorney General's Office in 2019. We continue to monitor, update, and improve all policies regularly. This continual improvement is part of the idea of Fair and Impartial Policing.

In closing, we are focusing time, resources, and energy to continual improvement in all aspects. The Windham County Sheriff's Office has been a longtime leader on several topics, including fair and impartial policing and how we interact with individuals experiencing mental health crises.

We look forward to hearing from Dummerston, Marlboro, and Putney's town meetings as we continue our work for the people of Windham County.

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