Police Data Show Racial Bias, But What About The Rest Of The Criminal Justice System?

Data collected by the state police point to racial disparities in traffic stops – and apparently the number of incidents is rising — in spite of increased

Source: Police Data Show Racial Bias, But What About The Rest Of The Criminal Justice System?

Data collected by the state police point to racial disparities in traffic stops – and apparently the number of incidents is rising — in spite of increased attention to the issue.

But what about racial bias in the rest of Vermont’s criminal justice system?

A recent national report by the Sentencing Project on racial and ethnic disparities in state prisons says Vermont has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates of African Americans compared to whites, based on the state’s population; a ratio of more than 10:1.

Audio for this piece will be posted.

In other words, the percentage of blacks in Vermont’s prisons is 10 times the percentage of blacks in the state’s overall population.

“I guess what I’m surprised about is where we stood on a national level,” says Mark Hughes, co-founder of the Montpelier-based organization Justice For All.

“Department of Corrections, they don’t drive around picking folks up arbitrarily, there’s an entire criminal justice apparatus that we need to acknowledge,” Hughes adds.

The percentage of blacks in Vermont’s prisons is 10 times the percentage of blacks in the state’s overall population.

Attorney Robert Appel served for eight years as the state’s Defender General.

He says in a place like Vermont, with an overwhelmingly white population, our own stereotyping and biases are at the root of racial disparities in the state’s prisons.

“I think the reason we have such gross disparity in the incarcerative population for African Americans is because they’re more likely to be drawn to the attention to the police,” Appel says.

“In fairness to the police, community members call up and say, ‘there’s three black male teenagers hanging out in the parking lot, they have their hats on sideways and they’re wearing baggy pants. Send a car’. And they found something, or it escalated.”

Appel compares the criminal justice system to a funnel. Law enforcement is the wide entry point, which is why he says there should be a focus on bias in policing.

But Appel says there are plenty of other opportunities for racial bias to show up in the multitude of choices made by prosecutors, by courts and by the corrections department.

“I think the reason we have such gross disparity in the incarcerative population for African-Americans is because they’re more likely to be drawn to the attention to the police.” — Robert Appel, served for eight years as the state’s Defender General

Every step of the way there are decisions about bail, plea agreements, sentencing recommendations and parole – all potentially subject to the biases of those who make them.

“It’s discretion upon discretion, upon discretion, upon discretion, upon discretion,” says Appel.

For example, Vermont’s 14 State’s Attorneys who prosecute cases operate fairly independently. No research has been done on possible racial bias in how they handle cases, although a recently-adopted information system could be used in future studies.

When David Cahill became Windsor County State’s Attorney last January he took a system usually used for the most serious crimes, like murders, and applied it to other cases.

Cahill says he makes decisions about whether to bring charges against someone without looking at information about the person’s race or even gender.

When considering plea bargains or sentencing recommendations, Cahill says he takes steps to make sure his recommendations aren’t outside of the norm.

“Recognizing that everyone has some implicit bias, the key is to take steps and mitigate it,” says Cahill.

Cahill, who until recently was head of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, says he’s not sure of the approach taken by other state’s attorney’s.

“Recognizing that everyone has some implicit bias, the key is to take steps and mitigate it.” — David Cahill, Windsor County State’s Attorney

And there aren’t any guidelines. Cahill says one goal of a recently-created best practices committee is to establish guidelines.

“The potential for unjust outcomes exists. I can’t point to any single case, but I can tell you theoretically that that potential exists and it probably does in actuality,” he says.

Cahill says there may be other ways to  look at the high percentage of African Americans in Vermont prisons.

Because of the movement of drugs from inner-city urban areas into Vermont, the prison population is made up partly of people from out of state. So it could reflect places with a very different racial makeup than Vermont’s.

“And the reality is that all of the urban areas to our south are much more diverse than Vermont. When folks from those cities bring heroin with them, they are bringing some of the cultural, ethnic and racial makeup of their area with them,” he says.

According to the Vermont-based Crime Research Group, data on race and residency of Vermont’s prison population is not readily available.

In 2015, the Crime Research Group issued a study called Race and Sentencing in Vermont, which looked strictly at prison sentences for a variety of misdemeanor convictions.

“This study found no evidence of systematic racial bias in sentencing … You’ve still got to ask the question, why are the numbers the way they are? That’s the question that has to be answered.” — Brian Grearson, Vermont’s Chief Superior Judge

“This study found no evidence of systematic racial bias in sentencing,” says Brian Grearson, the court system’s Chief Superior Judge. Grearson oversees the administration and assignment of the Superior Court trial judges.

The study didn’t attempt to answer why Vermont has a significant racial disparity in incarceration rates.

“You’ve still got to ask the question, why are the numbers the way they are? That’s the question that has to be answered,” Grearson says.

Traffic stop data point to bias in law enforcement as a factor, but we don’t have data on many other aspects of the criminal justice system.

“How do we get at those areas in the criminal justice system where that discretionary authority exists, in the same way we’ve taken a look at law enforcement officers,” says Mark Hughes of Justice For All.

“How do we take a look at that in those other decision making points to be able to measure it so we can manage it moving forward.”

Hughes says collecting data, creating policies and providing training to everyone in the criminal justice system is part of the answer.

Hughes and others also point to larger issues that underlie bias and need to be addressed, including cultural and historical attitudes about race and sharp racial inequities in economic and educational opportunities.

 

Paul O’Neal Killed by Chicago Police

Video of Fatal Shooting Released PONeal   

 

Source: Video Shows Chicago Police Firing at Car as It Drives Away

Video released Friday shows Chicago police firing repeatedly at a stolen car as it careens down the street away from them, then handcuffing the mortally wounded black teenager who was at the wheel after a chaotic foot chase through a residential neighborhood.

None of the footage from last month shows the suspected car thief getting shot in the back. Moments later, Paul O’Neal can be seen lying face-down on the ground, blood soaking through his T-shirt.

An officer is heard angrily accusing him of firing at police. Another officer asks, “They shot at us too, right?” suggesting police believed they had been fired upon and that they did not know how many suspects were present.

No gun was recovered from the scene.

Attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents O’Neal’s family, said the video showed officers taking “street justice into their own hands.”

In all, nine videos were released from both body cameras and at least one dashboard camera. It was the city’s first release of video of a fatal police shooting under a new policy that calls for such material to be made public within 60 days. That and other policy changes represent an effort to restore public confidence in the department after video released last year showed a black teenager named Laquan McDonald getting shot 16 times by a white officer. That video sparked protests and led to the ouster of the former police superintendent.

On the latest videos, an officer can be heard explaining that the suspect “almost hit my partner. I (expletive) shot at him.” Another officer who apparently fired his weapon laments that he was going to be on “desk duty for 30 (expletive) days now.”

The recording catches the stolen car being pursued by officers as it blows through a stop sign. Before the gunfire breaks out, the 18-year-old suspect sideswipes one squad car. As the officers open fire, he smashes into another.

Soon after the July 28 shooting, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stripped three of the officers of their police powers after a preliminary investigation concluded they had violated department policy. On Friday, he promised that if officers acted improperly they would “be held accountable for their actions.”

Authorities have not said specifically what policy the officers broke.

In February 2015, former Superintendent Garry McCarthy revised the department’s policy on the use of deadly force to prohibit officers from “firing at or into a moving vehicle when the vehicle is the only force used against the sworn member or another person.”

But the policy also says that officers “will not unreasonably endanger themselves or another person to conform to the restrictions of this directive,” meaning they have the right to defend themselves if they or someone else are in imminent danger of being struck.

The head of the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency that investigates Chicago police misconduct, called the footage “shocking and disturbing.” She did not elaborate.

The officer who killed O’Neal said that he believed O’Neal had fired at him. “I discharged three to five rounds, maybe,” he told a supervisor. “I heard gunshots coming at us.”

The moment of the shooting was not recorded because the officer’s body camera was not operating at the time, police said.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the officer’s body camera could have been deactivated when the stolen Jaguar slammed into his squad car and set off the air bags. He also pointed out that the body camera suddenly starts working after the shooting — an indication that the officer, believing the incident was over, thought he was turning the camera off when he was actually turning it on.

“We don’t believe there was any intentional misconduct with body cameras,” he said.

Oppenheimer alleged that the non-operating body camera was part of a police effort to cover-up what he called a “cold-blooded murder.”

Officers seemed keenly aware that they were wearing body cameras and that those cameras were recording all of their comments. At one point, an officer can be seen telling others that he did not know who was firing. Then another officer came up and said, ‘Hey,’ perhaps a quiet reminder about the cameras. Whatever the intent, the officers immediately stopped talking.

Oppenheimer said O’Neal’s family viewed the video Friday and were so distraught that they left without speaking to the media.

During the pursuit, more than a half-dozen officers race between houses into backyards in a desperate search for the person who fled from the car. One officer needs help scaling a wooden gate. Another officer is unable to climb over and walks around to the rear of another home where the suspect is on the ground.

One officer can be heard saying, “I shot. I don’t know who was shooting in the alley.”

The president of the Chicago police union complained about the release of the videos, saying it was unfair to the officers, could turn public opinion against them and even jeopardize their own safety.

“These guys live in the neighborhoods. Their kids go to school, and their photos will be all over the internet,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they did anything wrong, but someone may see it and perceive the officers should not have taken the actions they did.”

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the attorney’s name is spelled Oppenheimer, not Oppenheimerk.