The movement to slash police budgets has reached the Vermont legislature, where three Progressive lawmakers are urging their colleagues to divert at least 20 percent of the state police budget to other community services.
"We believe it is time for Vermont to join the growing movement to defund police departments, in light of the historic, systematic racism and other forms of bias that are well-documented in policing and use of force," wrote Rep. Diana González (P-Winooski), Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) and Rep. Brian Cina (P/D-Burlington) in an open letter published Wednesday.
Pressure to "defund" law enforcement agencies has intensified in recent weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis in May after an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Floyd’s death has reinvigorated calls to stop spending so much public money on police agencies, which are often one of the most expensive municipal departments. In Burlington, where police spending accounts for 22 percent of the city's budget, many are pushing for a 30 percent reduction to the force.
Vermont State Police spending represents a smaller slice of the Green Mountain State's multibillion-dollar budget. About $64 million of the department's $74 million fiscal year 2021 proposal would rely on state funds. Trimming state support by 20 percent would save roughly $12.8 million, and the Progressive lawmakers say that money would be better spent elsewhere.
They offered a list of potential beneficiaries: mental health crisis response services; support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence; restorative and community justice programs; solutions to end homelessness; investments in black and indigenous communities; and direct support for migrant/undocumented workers unable to benefit from federal COVID-19 stimulus money.
"We have an opportunity to strategically align our resources with services that are better able to meet the needs of our communities and keep all Vermonters safe," the lawmakers wrote.
The House approved a bridge budget last week that would pay Vermont's bills for the first quarter of the next fiscal year. The three-month spending plan, which is now in the Senate, would level-fund most state departments and buy the legislature time to better understand the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The Progressives asked lawmakers to consider their defunding request as they work to build the full budget over the summer.
“Large cities such as Minneapolis and New York are recognizing that it is time to align their budgets with their values and priorities. They are taking action to reduce police spending and realign resources. Vermont should do the same,” they wrote.
Critics of the defund movement argue that the country would be better off reforming police departments. "Trimming budgets is not a great idea. Investing is actually what we should be doing," Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, the former chief of police in Burlington, told Seven Days on Thursday afternoon.
Schirling said Vermont police departments have moved in recent years to allocate more resources toward social services — such as street outreach teams — which help them avoid sending officers to every call. But officers have also been asked to shoulder an increasing burden of the state's mental health and drug crises, Schirling said. So while he said he believes in investing more in community services, he does not support doing so at the expense of police budgets.
If the legislature cuts 20 percent from the Vermont State Police budget, "someone would have to choose what we're not going to do," he said.
"Do we not cover certain communities? Do we not do traffic enforcement? I can't imagine Vermonters would be very happy with a free-for-all on our highways," he said.
Proponents of the defund movement, meantime, say that better-funded social services could readily handle many police responsibilities and lead to safer interactions, particularly in communities of color and low-income people.
"It is now abundantly clear that if we hope to address police abuse and
advance racial justice in Vermont, the role of law enforcement must be
smaller, more circumscribed, and less funded with taxpayer dollars," wrote American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont executive director James Lyall in testimony submitted to lawmakers on Thursday.
It's too early to tell whether the Progressive lawmakers' request will get any traction; House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) appeared wary of the concept earlier this week, telling VTDigger.org that it's “not a place that I want to go initially."
Meantime, the Senate is looking to advance a series of police reforms that have been given new life in the wake of Floyd's death and the weeks of subsequent protests. One bill in particular — S.219 — combines several previously proposed concepts into a single, sweeping measure that would change how police use force, compel agencies to report race data and increase the use of body cameras.
The bill would cut off state grants to any police agency that fails to comply with race data reporting requirements that have been on the books since 2014. It would create a statewide policy that limits the use of deadly force to only when necessary, and it would require that police report use-of-force data in traffic stops. It would prohibit chokeholds and mandate that officers intervene if they observe a colleague use the restraint or any other form of excessive force. And it would require that all Vermont State Police be equipped with body cameras.
Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said it plans to take several days of testimony before voting out the bill by the end of the week.
Vermont public safety leaders sponsored several of the bill's main concepts in a four-page letter published on Thursday that urges a “systemic approach to comprehensive police reform."
The letter — which was drafted by various state and local law enforcement groups and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, among others — proposes 10 action items aimed at “accelerating modernization” of all Vermont police agencies. Many of the ideas were broadly detailed in a report sent to lawmakers in January, according to Schirling, the public safety commissioner.
The letter calls for changes to hiring and training practices, a statewide use-of-force policy and the universal use of body cameras. The letter also calls for more transparent misconduct investigations, more community collaboration and a “statewide stance” on the use of surplus military equipment.
“We will move forward together to ensure we not only follow constitutional, ethical, and core values, but match the needs of our respective communities,” the letter reads. “At a minimum, that means working together with all Vermonters to end the pattern and practice of disparate, inequitable treatment of the people throughout the criminal justice system.”
Gov. Phil Scott voiced support for the letter's proposed reforms Thursday afternoon, saying on Twitter that Vermonters cannot continue to treat racism "like uncomfortable and rare events."
“We need to acknowledge it’s systemic — it’s built into our social systems, our economic systems and everything in between," Scott wrote.
I’ve been inspired by peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protests we’ve seen across the country and in Vermont, crying out for long overdue change. It’s not enough to simply NOT be racist, we must be ANTI-racist and work to address systemic injustices in all aspects of our society. 1/10
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told his colleagues Thursday that he wants the chamber to advance any reform measures before June 26, a tentative deadline that legislative leaders have set for any bills unrelated to the spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds.
That’s a tight time frame in a world where controversial ideas can be debated for weeks. But lawmakers appear to sense urgency as calls for reform intensify both in Vermont and around the nation.
"There's really a balancing act between the sort of complete, exhaustive process that would normally accompany any piece of legislation that is significant, versus a race against time," Ashe told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. "Struggling to get that right is obviously the great task before you.
“I do believe that the time ... to act on some of these issues [is] now,” he added.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.