Protests that have swept Vermont in the weeks since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd may be giving new life to stalled reform legislation in Montpelier.
State lawmakers are scrambling before the session winds down to assemble a package of bills that could change how police use force, how agencies report race data and more. A key senator also said he plans a push to include funding for body cameras in the Vermont State Police budget, calling it long overdue.
"We must do it now," Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said Monday from the virtual Senate floor, referring to the body cams.
At the same time, Sears and some other legislative leaders said they may be constrained by the short time remaining before the legislature plans to adjourn later this month. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said in an interview that some measures may need to be considered during a special budget session in August.
"A big concern of mine is making sure that we are including communities of color in the discussion," Johnson said. "I want to make sure that this isn’t us as white leaders, white figures of authority, grabbing some ideas in the air and throwing them on the table and saying, 'Let’s do this now.'"
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Sears chairs, will try to craft a policy restricting when police may use deadly force. The panel will also look at “immediate adoption” of a statewide ban on chokehold restraints and requirements that officers intervene when they see a colleague using unnecessary force, he said.
The Rutland Area NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont both support H.808.
Racial justice advocates have also pushed lawmakers to pass legislation proposed in both chambers that would require police agencies to adopt a yet-to-be developed state model policy on police use of force, deescalation and cross-cultural awareness. The bills — S.119 and H.464 — would also require agencies to report data on when officers use force during traffic stops.
While many who attended a large Black Lives Matter protest in Montpelier last weekend urged a dramatic dismantling of police agencies, a few also carried signs calling upon lawmakers to consider those bills. “When you live in a primarily white state, where people have the privilege to not have to confront these issues day to day, stuff like this isn’t something that your politicians prioritize,” Kimberly Chadwell, 27, said at Sunday's event.
Other bills haven’t attracted much attention but also appear to be in play. Last Friday, the Senate Appropriations Committee backed a bill, S.219, that would require law enforcement agencies to comply with race data reporting requirements in order to receive state grants. The measure is now before the Judiciary Committee.
“There have been very few consequences for patchy follow-up,” Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said in committee last week, explaining his support. “Some departments take it more seriously than others.”
Another bill, S.124, includes tweaks to how police misconduct gets reported, and allows the state’s police certification body, the Criminal Justice Training Council, to sanction officers the first time they are found to have used excessive force. It also requires police departments to provide an analysis of a former employee's job performance when called for a reference.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeannette White (D-Windham), told fellow senators this week that the Senate Government Operations Committee she chairs will take testimony on the issues but will coordinate with others to assemble one legislative package.
Citing the time crunch, Sears on Monday told senators that former Judiciary Committee intern Skyler Nash, who is black, had agreed to help craft the legislation. The comment prompted criticism from Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden), who said Sears was “tokenizing” Nash instead of engaging with communities of color on the proposed reforms.
“I think if you put out the call, you’ll find many other people will also be willing to help the committee,” she said.
Sears apologized. “We’re going to hear from as many people as I can possibly hear from,” he said.