Vermont House Passes Three Racial Justice Reform Bills | Off Message

Vermont House Passes Three Racial Justice Reform Bills


  • Daniel Fishel
The Vermont House passed a trio of bills Tuesday meant to dismantle the racism built into Vermont institutions. The bills would change an array of police and corrections practices — including ones regarding the use of deadly force, body camera footage and the hiring of new police officers.

Following the votes, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) issued a statement saying the bills were needed to ensure that people of "all races, genders and identities" felt welcome in Vermont.

“In order to build a truly just and equitable society, we must be committed to breaking down structural racism,” Johnson said. “It is incumbent upon all of us to recognize it, name it, fight it, and right the centuries of wrong.”

The broadest bill, S.124, addresses changes to policing policies and training. It would require law enforcement agencies that are considering hiring an officer from another department to request their performance reviews.

Other changes would be semantic. These include removing the word “training” from the name of the Criminal Justice Training Council to reflect its broader mission, and referring to "recruits" — a term also used by the military — as “law enforcement applicants.”

The bill also would add civilian members to the council, including a mental health crisis worker and person chosen by the NAACP.

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) called the expansion of representatives on the council an effort to “continue the rebalancing of our criminal justice system that is necessary and long overdue.”

The bill would also instruct the council to study and propose policies on the use of body cameras and footage, access to surplus military equipment and facial recognition technology.

“Vermonters have asked for a stern look at whether we are doing everything we can to ensure all Vermonters are treated equitably by our police,” Copeland Hanzas said. “S.124 makes many important steps to achieve that equity.”

Also advanced Tuesday was S.119, a bill establishing statewide standards for the use of deadly force. Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington) said incidents of police brutality around the nation have triggered Vermont representatives to do some soul-searching of their own.

“When it comes to use of force, we must ensure that law enforcement is accountable to the citizens of Vermont,” LaLonde said.

He noted the state’s current laws on deadly force, which date back to the late 1700s, simply note that officers “will be guiltless” if they kill or wound someone “in the just and necessary discharge of his or her duty.”

The dated language is “in dire need of updating” and may even be unconstitutional, LaLonde said. The bill would require officers to consider factors such as language barriers or mental impairment when deciding whether to use force. It also would ban the use of "prohibited restraints" such as choke holds under most circumstances. 

Some of the proposed use-of-force standards are already written into police departments' policies. But LaLonde said requiring them by law has “more potential to shape police culture."

“The possibility of criminal charges or lawsuits can help motivate compliance with standards for use of force, and ensures accountability of law enforcement of Vermonters,” he said.

Rep. Tom Burditt (R-Rutland) opposed the bill, saying it had been rushed. The Department of Public Safety had not offered sufficient input, even though it would, he said, “severely alter the way they do their job.”

Burditt, whose son is a police officer in Seattle, noted that while the bill would allow officers to use restraints when necessary, “it has the potential to make them think that extra second whether they can use it in a life-and-death situation.”

Finally, the House passed S.24, a bill requiring the Department of Corrections to come up with a plan to “address systemic racism, bias, and diversity and inclusion” in the department.

The bill would require the commissioner of corrections to deliver a report to the legislature by January 15, 2021.

“This legislation sets the table and a direction for a process to change the culture and systems within corrections to be more equitable and just for the people who are incarcerated and for our state employees,” Rep. Sara Coffey (D-Guilford) said in a statement.

All three bills still need the approval of the Senate, which is working through legislation before the end of the extended session this week.