City chief defends Vergennes police anti-bias efforts

VERGENNES — Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel defended his department’s equal treatment of all citizens at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Merkel was invited to speak because questions arose at the Aug. 22 council meeting about the January University of Vermont study that stated the Vergennes department pulled over vehicles driven by African-Americans at a much higher rate than by whites.
Those questions cropped up as the council adopted a resolution supporting citizens’ rights “to love whom they choose; to practice the religion of their choice; to support their families; to be free from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations; and to be safe and secure in their homes and communities.”
The council asked Merkel to address how the department already works to be free of bias and what steps it would take in the future. Merkel also addressed what he considers to be a flawed study — but its author just as strongly defends.
First he tackled his personal and official department policies.
Merkel, speaking to around 20 Vergennes residents as well as the council, said he has always believed in treating people with respect, and has insisted on that within the Vergennes department.
“If you treat people with respect and courtesy, you’ll get the same in return,” he said. “I never had any place in my heart or my profession for people who didn’t subscribe to that. When I came to Vergennes I made sure that was one of the cornerstones of my leadership, and I passed it on to my officers. And I was very lucky when I got here that I had officers who subscribed to that very concept.”
Merkel, an instructor at the Vermont Police Academy, said formal police training includes 28 hours in areas such as community policing, fair and impartial police policy, ethics, hate crimes and cultural sensitivity. Then follows field training during a year of probation, during which Merkel said he would not tolerate disrespect toward citizens.
“I make it clear to people if you’re going to be wearing the uniform of the Vergennes Police Department you’re going to be treating people with respect and courtesy,” he said.
Officers must also record all official interactions with the public. Merkel periodically reviews the recordings, and personally reviews them if a complaint is lodged, and said he makes “corrections” if necessary.
In addition, he said all searches of vehicles stopped at roadsides are automatically reviewed to make sure the vehicle was stopped and the search was requested for proper cause and the driver and any passengers were treated properly.
The department also developed a “Fair and Impartial” policing policy that officers must follow before such policies were mandated by the state. Merkel shared the policy with council members before the meeting.
Alderman Renny Perry said he was impressed.
“I think people should read it. It is very, very comprehensive,” Perry said.
Merkel said he would hold at least one forum a year for public discussion of police issues, but he hoped people wouldn’t wait to talk to him.
“I’m a very approachable person. I welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with anybody who has any concerns,” Merkel said.
Merkel also questioned the “Driving While Black and Brown In Vermont” report released in January by lead author and UVM economics professor Stephanie Seguino, and Nancy Brooks, a visiting professor from Cornell.
Among other things, the study concluded in Vermont, “the Black arrest rate is almost double the White arrest rate”; “Black drivers are four times more likely to be searched, subsequent to a stop, than White drivers”; and “Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped at a higher rate.”
Of particular concern to Vergennes officials, residents and Merkel is the survey’s conclusion that the Vergennes department is the state’s most likely law enforcement agency to stop an African-American driver, by a rate almost three times that of the black share of Addison County’s population.
According to the explanation of a chart in the study, the figure is obtained with this formula: “the share of Black drivers stopped by agency divided by the county Black share of the driving population.”
Merkel criticized the study’s small sample size and methodology, noted it was not peer-reviewed before its release, and complained its lead author, Seguino, would not return his calls to discuss his concerns.
The central issue, he said, is that about 80 percent of the African-American drivers stopped by the department were not county residents, and comparing the total stops to the county’s African-American population creates an inaccurate result.
“She’s using a reference point of the Census for Addison County of black population,” Merkel said. “Eighty percent of those car stops were not of Addison County’s black population. We have a problem with that. It’s skewing the numbers.”
Because the results reflected poorly on his department and on Vergennes, Merkel believes he was owed a return call.
“I took it personally,” he said. “I thought it was warranting a discussion to talk about the process, and I wasn’t even given the courtesy of a return phone call.”
On Wednesday Seguino responded by email to a request for comment from the Independent. She said the data she used for the study were not based on Census information, but on mandatory police reporting of accident data that included the race of drivers.
By using the accident report data to get a percentage of drivers who were African American, she said, there was an apples-to-apples correlation between the percentage of black drivers on the road and the percentage of those stopped by police who were black.
“Not-at-fault accident data come from (the Department of Motor Vehicles), and are based on officer accident reports of ALL drivers in a county — that includes in- and out-of-state drivers,” Seguino wrote. “He (Merkel) may have erroneously assumed that that the county estimates are of the black, white, populations, etc. They are not. That is why we use accident reports — because it is a better estimate of who is on the road, regardless of the state the vehicle is from.”
Seguino acknowledged the study was not peer-reviewed, but said its methodology was: “There are no flaws in methodology. A previous study on Burlington, Winooski, UVM, and S. Burlington that uses the methodology of this paper was peer reviewed by academics who do work on racial disparities in policing (and) found the methodology and empirical results to be sound.”
Seguino said she did reach out to Merkel and would do so again:
“Before the study came out, I contacted all chiefs, including Chief Merkel, to discuss their results and get feedback. I had some very useful conversations with some chiefs, but Chief Merkel did not respond to my offer to discuss results. I have been out of the country and on sabbatical so if he contacted me recently, I may have missed that email. In any case, the opportunity to engage would have ideally been last December and this January before the study came out. I would have welcomed that opportunity. I will be doing more analysis of data and look forward to productive engagement with all chiefs in this process.”
Merkel said another entity, the Crime Research Group, is currently analyzing data that should include more recent and comprehensive information than the 2015 data that Seguino analyzed.
In the meantime, he remains confident in his personnel.
“I have complete trust in their honesty and integrity and their heart,” Merkel said. “I’ll stand behind them and meet with them if a correction needs to be made.”
Those in attendance on Tuesday stood behind Vergennes officers, as well. Council member Lynn Donnelly drew applause when she called the UVM study “totally untrue” and spoke in support of Merkel and the city police force.
“I think we have the best department we’ve ever had, and I trust you 100 percent,” Donnelly said.
One in attendance, Vergennes Development Review Board member Jason Farrell, said the discussion was healthy and citizens had a “responsibility to speak out” and make sure council members and Merkel were doing what they should on the issue.
“We should challenge how we do the work we do,” Farrell said. “It’s how we do work better.”
Merkel pledged to keep an open mind and said if problems exist he would take steps to fix them.
“I have no tolerance for people being treated improperly, and I have no tolerance for people making accusations that are unfounded,” Merkel said. “And if somebody said, ‘Chief, you’re information is incorrect,’ I would welcome that opportunity to sit down and discuss that with them.’ And then I would eat my words if I was wrong.”

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