Vermont Legislature Passes Police Reform Bill | Off Message

Vermont Legislature Passes Police Reform Bill


Protesters listen to speakers at a demonstration in Montpelier - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Protesters listen to speakers at a demonstration in Montpelier
Vermont House lawmakers on Friday unanimously endorsed a bill that would ban police from using chokeholds, condition grant funding on data reporting requirements and mandate that all state troopers wear body cameras.

The bill, S.219, also commits lawmakers to consider further reform measures in the years ahead in recognition of the societal awakening that has occurred since the death last month of George Floyd.

The Senate unanimously approved the bill last week and — after some last-minute jockeying with the House before adjourning for two months — concurred with the lower chamber's version late Friday night. The bill now heads to Gov. Phil Scott, who has signaled his support for police reforms.

"We're living in tumultuous times, and we all know there have been sweeping calls to drastically change law enforcement," said Rep. Nader Hashim (D-Dummerston), a former state trooper, as he virtually presented the bill on the floor.

"That is a task we cannot complete in one week," Hashim said. "It is also not a task we can complete without hearing input from the actual Vermonters — not government entities or advocacy groups — but the actual Vermonters who are afraid of being pulled over for driving while Black, or the Vermonters with mental health issues."
"This bill is one that addresses some changes we should see happen now, while also setting the stage to create proper policy that involves hearing from the voices of those who have been marginalized," Hashim said.

Friday's legislation includes several previously stalled measures that were given new life in the wake of nationwide demonstrations in protest of Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police. Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In hopes of fast-tracking the reforms, Senate lawmakers broke off one of the more controversial proposals into a separate bill that would change 
the standard used to determine whether police were justified in using deadly force. That bill, S.119, passed the Senate last week, and House lawmakers asked for more time to discuss it. They plan to do so once they return to craft the state budget in late August. 
The bill passed Friday would withhold state grant funding from any police agencies that fail to comply with existing race data reporting requirements and would expand the type of data that must be collected. Agencies must already gather information such as age, race and gender during traffic stops; they would also need to report whether they threatened or used physical force and whether any injuries occurred.

The measure seeks to ban chokeholds and any other forms of restraint that apply "pressure to the neck, throat, windpipe, or carotid artery that may prevent or hinder breathing, reduce intake of air, or impede the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain."

Officers who seriously injure or kill someone with such a restraint can be charged with a new crime that carries up to a 20-year prison sentence or a $50,000 fine. Officers who observe a colleague unlawfully use the restraint or any other form of excessive force and fail to intervene could face professional repercussions.

The bill would require the Department of Public Safety to submit a budget by August that covers the purchase of body cameras for all state police.

The measure also "commits" the legislature to work on further racial justice and police reform efforts, including but not limited to any recommendations that "come forward through a process of meaningful community engagement, particularly with impacted, marginalized, and vulnerable communities."
House and Senate lawmakers reached an impasse Friday afternoon over two relatively minor points: whether to include a sunset provision on the new chokehold crime, and the date by which state police must start wearing body cameras.

Top lawmakers from both chambers met virtually Friday evening to negotiate a compromise. The bill heading to the governor maintains the sunset provision, at the request of the House, and sets the body camera date to the Senate's initial proposal of August 1.

Both law enforcement officials and people of color have questioned whether the legislature has moved too quickly in its quest for action, noting that the timeframe has limited the amount of testimony from interested parties. 

Advancing the proposals anyway, lawmakers stressed that the bill is only a start. "It is meant as a step to create change — and I repeat, a step," said Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie (D-Hartford), a member of the Social Equity Caucus, before the vote.

"It does make a couple of key, new steps moving forward," said Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield). "But it recognizes, as the law enforcement community itself has recognized and stated so clearly, there's much work to do."

Hashim, who is stepping down from the legislature this year after one term, said he has been in a "curious position" as lawmakers have crafted their proposals this month.

"The ideas of preserving officers' safety and also addressing systemic racism ... are important to me," said Hashim, who left the state police last year. "And just to be clear, the two points are not mutually exclusive."

Hashim agreed that the bill is not a "cure all" for the "centuries of oppression of different demographics of people, primarily Black people and poor people." In fact, he said, as long as cultural problems exist in law enforcement, issues of biased policing or brutality will exist no matter what lawmakers write in statute.
"A police department can have the most progressive rules and regulations," he said. "If they hire a person whose priority is to commit violence, that person will find a way to commit violence. If a police department hires a person who genuinely wants to help their communities and preserve life, then that is the product people see."

What the bill does accomplish is "one of many steps" toward a better public safety system, Hashim said.

"We should be proud to hold our members of law enforcement to high standards," Hashim said. "It is not an offense to the badge to expect those who wear it to perform their duties with the utmost integrity and in a fair and impartial manner."

"The work is far from finished," he added. 

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