Cops and Community Confront Biased Policing Charge | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » News

Cops and Community Confront Biased Policing Charge

Local Matters


Published December 7, 2005 at 2:05 p.m.

SOUTH BURLINGTON -- The Reverend Rico Diamond isn't ashamed to admit that 30 years ago, he was a criminal with a rap sheet as long as his arm. In fact, today he considers his troubled past "an asset" to his work as a minister -- it shows others that they, too, can radically transform their lives.

But Diamond contends that when South Burlington police showed up at his room at the Holiday Inn Express last March 21, all they saw was a black man with a fat wad of cash. Diamond, who is pastor of the New Wine-New Mind Ministries and has lived in Burlington for 10 years, explains that he was carrying a large amount of money because he was coordinating an Easter seminar for numerous out-of-town guests.

At the time, the police suspected otherwise. They confiscated more than $5000 of the Ministries' money, but didn't arrest Diamond or charge him with any crime. The police later returned the cash, and Diamond filed a formal complaint against the officers and the department. In June, an internal investigation concluded that the officers had not engaged in racial profiling -- the police claim they were acting on a tip about possible drug trafficking in the area. In response, Diamond filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the department, alleging official misconduct and racial profiling.

Last week, Diamond, his supporters and other community members sat down with representatives from South Burlington and the police department to try to iron out their differences and discuss the thorny issue of racial profiling. The forum, held at the Orchard School, was organized by the Coalition to Undo Racism in Vermont (CUReVT), a new community group that formed after some area residents were stymied in their efforts to get more documentation from the police about the March 21 incident.

Jim Condos, South Burlington City Council chair and a state senator, said city officials aren't at liberty to discuss the details of the Diamond incident due to pending litigation. But Police Chief Lealand Graham told the 40 or so community members in attendance that his department doesn't engage in racial profiling.

"We know that racial profiling violates civil liberties. It hinders the short- and long-term goals of law enforcement effectiveness," Graham said. "We also know that citizens are less likely to report crimes or criminal activity if they lack trust or confidence in their police department or if they perceive the police department to be unfair or biased."

Graham admitted he could have been more diligent in responding to the community group's request for information, explaining that he was out of town when their letter arrived. When Graham returned, he forwarded the letter to an attorney but never followed up on it. Still, Graham said he's glad to "get this matter out in the open."

"We want to be as transparent as we can," Graham added. "There are things we can't share, but we'll share what we can."

Members of CUReVT unveiled 10 "community and law enforcement needs" they want addressed. They include a request for a formal apology to Diamond; an acknowledgement that racism exists in the city of South Burlington; a review of the police department's policies on racial bias; and mandatory training for all officers and supervisors on eliminating bigotry and prejudice in policing.

"Undoing racism is hard work that involves all of us," said CUReVT member Doyle Canning of Shelburne. "We hope that the South Burlington Police Department will join us and move from here with an attitude of accountability and transparency and commitment to addressing racism in the institution."

Graham said he's open to discussing the 10 points, but he noted that the department's "bias-free policing" policy was just adopted two years ago after a lengthy drafting process involving input from human-rights experts and community leaders from around the state. South Burlington's bias-free policy has since been adopted by the vast majority of law enforcement agencies in Vermont, he added.

Paul Kissel, a patrol officer who's been with the South Burlington PD since 1980, pointed out that not all the department's 37 officers are white -- the force includes one black officer and two Latinos. Kissel stated that in all his years of working in South Burlington, he's never once witnessed racism or racial profiling on the job. He and his fellow officers wouldn't tolerate it, he said.

Diamond, who occasionally got choked up while discussing his past and the respect he's earned from the Burlington police, sounded an encouraging note about the forum. "I cherish the relationship I have with the officers in the city of Burlington, and would welcome having that same sort of relationship with the officers in South Burlington," Diamond said.