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Police Chief Tony Facos Active in Implementing New Impartial Policing Policies

by Carla Occaso
Montpelier’s police chief joined statewide law enforcement entities to influence a new law approved by the legislature that curbs ethnic (or any other) biases when it comes to pursuit strategies. Montpelier Police Department Chief Tony Facos testified this legislative session in both the House and Senate to shape the bill dealing with police profiling that became law on May 1, 2014. It seems that policing agencies, in the name of protecting the public, have to balance the need to assert freedom to investigate crimes when they have limited information against the need to protect individuals from a multitude of profiling biases.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Facos in a conversation with The Bridge on May 5. “This is something we must do as law enforcement and something the public expects of us.” Currently there is no hard data showing trends, because data-collecting methods across the state have not been uniform. Following this session’s legislation, police agencies and individual town constables across the state are developing ways to conform to bias-free policing policies. VSA 2366 was adopted on May 1. It authorizes the collection of data across the state to find out if biases exist when it comes to traffic stops. Once the data is collected, it will be made public.
This most recent incarnation of the anti-profiling law is a revised extension of legislation originally adopted in 2012 that followed a briefing report done in 2008 titled “Racial Profiling in Vermont: Briefings Before the Vermont Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.”
The creation of more detailed procedures, according to the 2008 briefing, is in response to “a strong perception, particularly among persons of color, that actual or perceived race, ethnicity, or national origin is used as the basis for law enforcement decision-making for traffic and pedestrian stops.”
Part of the reason for revisiting the 2012 legislation was because of wording that was so concerned with preventing racial profiling that it would tie the hands of police investigators when it came to pursuing some cases. For example, “It would have a chilling effect on our ability to investigate human trafficking,” Facos said, but he also noted those cases have so far occurred outside of Montpelier. The new wording is broad enough to allow law enforcement to pursue racially sensitive cases. When stopping motorists, “We’re not going to blindly ask:  ‘Where are you from? Why are you here?’” Facos said. Rather, police would only move forward on cases where there were strong reasons to suspect a crime.
The Montpelier Police Department’s policy has also undergone changes. It’s policy on “Stops, Search & Arrest; Motor Vehicle Contacts,” titled, “Biased-based Policing,” which was implemented on March 15, 2012, had the stated purpose of prohibiting use of “race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin as a reason to restrict liberty.” The policy goes on to dictate that officers treat all individuals with respect, refrain from stopping drivers based on race and to only detain a person for the length of time it takes to “meet the objectives of that which justified the stop.” The policy further defines that officers must record all details related to traffic stops, including number of stops, reason for stops and ethnicity of the person stopped, as well as nature of violation, whether a warning or citation was issued and any additional information.
The new policy, titled “Fair and Impartial Policing,” with the planned implementation date of 5/14/2014, runs five pages, versus the original policy’s two pages. The primary purpose of the updated policy is to prevent law enforcement officers from stopping people on a wider variety of biases, including “race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, color, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, mental or physical disability, religion, socio-economic level or national origin,” but it allows leeway in “those cases where one of the classifications above is a descriptive factor concerning a suspect.”
One of the main differences between the 2012 policy and the 2014 policy is an increased number of criteria officers must disregard when policing. Also, in the newer policy, officers are required to answer questions and furnish their name and identification upon request. And, in addition, officers are not to ask people about their citizenship status “when investigating a civil violation.”
The agency is required to train its members on bias-free policing, but is given the power to exercise freedom to ask about immigration status if there is reason to believe an illegal border crossing has immediately occurred and to take necessary steps to uphold public safety.
But on a day-to-day basis in Montpelier, officers will make sure “stops are based on actual conduct that is legal for us to intervene on,” Facos said.