When the Legislature convened on Jan. 7 this year, no one thought we would still be meeting in September. We finally adjourned Friday, Sept. 25, after the longest legislative session in Vermont’s history. The coronavirus pandemic constituted a major disruption in the lives of everyone on the planet and is still doing so. After shutting down the Statehouse in March, the Legislature adapted. We came together virtually, stronger and more united in purpose, and immediately led with our values to support Vermonters and our communities through this trying time. We moved swiftly, always putting people first. We supported our neighbors with the help of aid from Congress and passed major legislation addressing other issues as well, including climate change and racial inequities.
There is no doubt that 2020 will go down in history as a momentous year. Along with COVID-19 and unprecedented wildfires throughout the West, it was marked by several high-profile killings of people of color and, most recently, by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the same week RBG was being laid to rest, a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, failed to indict police officers for the killing of Breonna Taylor in her own apartment. Nationwide demonstrations over the killing of Taylor and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, persisted throughout the summer and were inflamed this week by the results in the Taylor case. Locally, demonstrators in Burlington’s Battery Park have been demanding the firing of three police officers who were involved in several use of force incidents.
In recognition of the systemic racism impacting people of color, the Legislature took weeks of testimony regarding racial equity and police reform and passed two bills, S.119 and S.124. These bills build on S.219, an act addressing racial bias and excessive use of force by law enforcement, which passed in June and was signed into law in July. S.219 requires state law enforcement agencies to comply with reporting requirements on race data and use of force, including threatened force, during roadside stops. It also amends unprofessional conduct parameters for law enforcement to include 1) using a prohibited restraint on a person that may prevent or hinder breathing, reduce intake of air, or impede the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain, and 2) failing to intervene and failing to report to a supervisor when an officer observes another officer using a prohibited restraint or otherwise using excessive force on a person.
S.119 modernizes statutory standards for law enforcement use of force and requires the standards to be implemented statewide. The last time the Legislature put restrictions on police use of force was in 1840, providing that a law enforcement officer will be guiltless if he kills or wounds someone while serving legal process or in suppressing opposition against him in the just and necessary discharge of his duty. The updated standards provide that the use of force by law enforcement is lawful if it is “objectively reasonable, necessary, and proportional,” and the use of deadly force is lawful if it is “objectively reasonable and necessary in defense of human life.”
S.124 reorganizes the Criminal Justice Training Council as the Criminal Justice Council, whose job it is to train and professionally regulate law enforcement officers. It will now be a balanced council made up of civilians, including people representing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Color) communities, people who have lived experience with mental health conditions or psychiatric disorders, and a mental health crisis worker as well as representatives of law enforcement and the Attorney General’s office. The council will recommend statewide policies on officer qualifications, testing and training and will propose policies on use of body cams, surplus military equipment and facial recognition technology.
Additionally, this year’s budget allocates about $525,000 to embed mental health professionals with law enforcement. Hopefully, by clarifying the parameters of use of force and providing an alternative approach to de-escalating potential violence, we will be able to avoid excessive use of force incidents in the future.
Finally, voting is underway with ballots mailed out statewide for the November election. Your vote is your voice. Use it! I welcome your emails or phone calls at (802) 233-5238. This article and others can be found at my website.