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Police Reform Bills In Montpelier Get Pushback From Both Cops And Their Critics

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Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR
Vermont House lawmakers met via Zoom on Wednesday to discuss police reform legislation approved by the Senate earlier this week. Some criminal justice reform advocates say the Legislature needs more community input before passing the bills.

Anti-racism protests across Vermont in recent weeks have prompted lawmakers to fast-track police accountability legislation in Montpelier. But some criminal justice reform advocates say the bills don’t reflect the perspectives of communities most susceptible to police misconduct.

Legislation approved by the Vermont Senate this week would create a new statewide policy governing lethal use of force, and impose an absolute ban on the use of chokeholds and other neck restraints.

Provisions in the legislation would also require use of body cameras for Vermont State Police and create new financial sanctions for police departments that aren’t in compliance with long-standing data collection mandates.

See the Senate bill imposing new financial sanctions for police departments here.

Kiah Morris, a former legislator from Bennington who now works for an organization called Rights and Democracy, told lawmakers Wednesday that the alleged murder of George Floyd by a police officer, and the ensuing calls for reform across Vermont, “creates a natural urgency to act.”

She said lawmakers should hold off on finalizing their legislative response, however, until they have more “community input and design.”

"There's a sense from many people that this is all going so quickly that no one other than the Legislature can have a handle on what is really taking place." — Etan Nasreddin-Longo, Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Panel

“This means that those most impacted need to lead the design process — not just provide testimony, but as peers and subject matter experts of their own experiences,” Morris said. “To create the dramatic and lasting change we need, you must do things differently, and this may require slowing down to create something distinctly new.”

Morris said lawmakers and law enforcement officials have played an outsized role in crafting legislation now awaiting action in the Vermont House of Representatives. She isn’t the only criminal justice reform advocate urging lawmakers to defer action until they hear from a more diverse array of perspectives.

“There’s a sense from many people that this is all going so quickly that no one other than the Legislature can have a handle on what is really taking place,” said Etan Nasreddin-Longo, who chairs the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Panel.

The 13-member panel submitted a report to lawmakers in December that includes a number of proposals to address racial disparities across the criminal justice system. Nasredden-Longo told House lawmakers Wednesday that there’s “anger” among some panel members about the way the legislative process unfolded in recent weeks.

And he said conversations with some lawmakers made it clear that they hadn’t actually read the panel’s report prior to drafting the pending police reform legislation.

More from VPR: Panel Wants More Resources To Investigate Racial Bias In Vt. Criminal Justice System

"Good laws can pass quickly. And oftentimes we are motivated to pass those good laws when a tragedy and a traumatic situation has occurred." — Bor Yang, Vermont Human Rights Commission

Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Human Rights, told lawmakers Tuesday to heed the calls for more immediate action. She noted that the Fair Housing Act, a landmark civil rights law, was signed into law a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Good laws can pass quickly. And oftentimes we are motivated to pass those good laws when a tragedy and a traumatic situation has occurred,” Yang said. “Through this bill … this legislature acknowledges that our standard for use of force is inadequate, that body cameras are necessary to hold officers accountable, that our criminal justice system is not just flawed, but perhaps has perpetuated violence against African Americans for generations.”

Yang, however, said the legislation falls well short of the more sweeping reforms needed to address abuses of power by law enforcement agencies. She said true police accountability won’t arrive until the state establishes a civilian oversight board, “with the power to review police use of force and hold them accountable through criminal prosecution and swift termination.”

“You cannot rely on law enforcement to investigate and regulate themselves,” Yang said. “There is a natural conflict of interest there.”

The legislation is also getting pushback from law enforcement officials.

"We are firmly in the camp of embracing oversight, embracing more restrictions really, or more parameters, around how law enforcement operates." — Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling

Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling said his department, which oversees Vermont State Police, is eager to partner with the Legislature on reforms.

“We are firmly in the camp of embracing oversight, embracing more restrictions really, or more parameters, around how law enforcement operates,” Schirling told lawmakers Tuesday. “It’s how you do that. We’ve got to find the best mechanisms to do that. It’s not a question of whether you do it. It’s how you do it.”

Schirling said the proposed changes to use-of-force guidelines are especially problematic.

The existing legal standard for determining whether lethal force is warranted is based on whether the action was “objectively reasonable.” The pending bill, which borrows language from legislation passed in California recently, would also require that the use of lethal force be “necessary.”

Schirling said the addition of the term “necessary” would upend decades of case law, and create a confusing and untested legal environment for police and the entities that fund them.

See the Senate bill banning chokeholds here.

“It will create havoc in training, and havoc in frankly an exposure to taxpayers,” Schirling said. “It’ll be a boon for trial lawyers to essentially create an interesting area of new litigation without any substantive changes to the outcomes of these events, which is what we’re trying to get to.” 

Schirling also wants lawmakers to carve out an exception for the use of chokeholds.

He said police officers should be able to resort to neck restraints if lethal force is warranted, and they’re in an environment where they’re unable to use a firearm.

“A neck restraint in that particular circumstance would be a valid tactic,” he said.

Schirling said Vermont State Police already prohibit the use chokeholds or neck restraints to subdue people in situations that don’t merit lethal force.

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