ADDISON COUNTY — Addison County is generally recognized as a state leader in bias-free policing policies. Still, members of the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition say there is work to be done.
The Addison Coalition, along with migrant outreach and human rights groups across the state, are gearing up for discussions on how to expand and strengthen anti-discrimination policies in police departments across the state. This move follows the November 2010 release by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell of a model policy to prevent police discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or immigration status.
Cindy Maguire, criminal division chief at the attorney general’s office, said that the proposal is based on policies of departments across the country and around the state who are already practicing bias-free policing policies — among them Middlebury and Burlington.
Middlebury police chief Tom Hanley said that while the department’s policy officially went into effect in 2001, it had been in practice before that. This policy states that the department is concerned with crimes within the community, not immigration status.
Specifically, Hanley explained that Middlebury police officers will not ask passersby or someone reporting a crime for proof of residency. He said that his department considers this sort of enforcement to fall outside of its jurisdiction.
“We’re looking for people committing crimes,” said Hanley. “Not civil regulation issues.”
The threat of an immigration check, said Hanley, could deter some county residents from reporting crime.
“We’re here for preservation of the peace,” said Hanley. “If by our own policies we’re driving a certain percentage of our population undercover, then that’s not good police work.”
To Cheryl Connor, a Bridport dairy farmer and the co-convener of the Addison Coalition, these policies make the job easier and safer for her fellow dairy farmers and their employees.
“It means we can transport workers, take them grocery shopping, take them to the human services they need without a huge fear of being stopped by a police officer on the road,” she said.
Maguire said that in the process of assembling the statewide proposal, she encountered questions about why an anti-bias policy that prevents questioning residency status makes sense — especially considering the heated national debate over immigration. But she, like Hanley, said that deporting those who have committed no crime is a federal priority and should not be a priority for Vermont police departments.
Maguire explained that the office designed its model for a bias-free policing policy at the recommendation of a 2009 report by the Vermont chapter of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Maguire said that while many departments in the state already have a policy that begins to address racial and ethnic discrimination issues, not all of these policies are as extensive as they could be.
“(This proposal) is important because it states the obvious,” Maguire said. “In a state like Vermont, the more we have this conversation about treating people fairly, the better.”
Maguire cited the state’s comparatively low racial diversity as one reason why some departments have been slow to spell out clear policies.
She added that while the attorney general’s office has no authority to mandate the adoption of a bias-free policing policy, the proposal has been generally well received.
“The response from law enforcement has been very positive,” Maguire said. “Several departments have already indicated that they’re going to adopt the policy in whole, and some in part.”
According to Maguire, the attorney general’s office will continue to follow up with departments across the state, and will be working on a policy training program that state and local police departments will be able to incorporate into their own officer training.
Where the attorney general’s jurisdiction ends, groups like the Addison Coalition and the Underhill-based Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project (VMFSP) are hoping to step in. The VMFSP, along with five other human rights groups, has released an informational packet designed to give groups the information they need to bring up the issue of bias-free policing in their community government and police department.
“A lot of groups working with farmworkers, including ours, saw this as an opportunity to take that recommendation and turn it into local policy — along the lines of what was done in Middlebury,” said Brendan O’Neill, coordinator of VMFSP.
And once these policies are enacted in the community, said O’Neill, the packet encourages citizens to work for the cause, making sure their local law enforcement is accountable to these policies.
“It’s not just a policy campaign,” said O’Neill. “The goal is to create active communities. It means a lot more if people stand up for rights in their own communities.”
For its part, the Addison Coalition is contacting police departments and selectboards in towns other than Middlebury in order to keep the conversation going and keep the pressure on.
Still, Cheryl Mitchell, a New Haven resident and Connor’s fellow Addison Coalition convener, said that much of the group’s emphasis will be on keeping Addison County ahead of the curve on its bias-free policing policies. Especially in recent years, data from Burlington-based Uncommon Alliance show that incidents of race-based traffic stops in the county have nearly disappeared.
“Our policing in this county is increasingly based on concerns that people are committing a crime, versus concerns that people are here without papers,” said Mitchell. “I think this county should be proud of how it’s addressing these issues.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]