Vermont bills aim to boost police oversight, training, professionalism
MONTPELIER -- Vermont lawmakers are considering two bills that backers say will boost the professionalism of police officers, but some law enforcement officials see them as meddling in their affairs.
One would require part-time police officers, including deputy sheriffs, to undergo the same 16 weeks of training that full-time officers get at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. The part-timers now spend one week -- that will be increased next month to two -- at the academy, with additional coursework and on-the-job training while serving.
The other would strengthen the authority of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which oversees the academy. The council would be able to hear allegations of professional misconduct by police officers and have the power to strip officers of their professional license.
The measures have the backing of key lawmakers, including the chairs of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Government Operations Committee. But they're getting pushback from the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Vermont State Police, and the Vermont Sheriffs' Association, which represents the 14 county sheriffs' departments.
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the bills align with his committee's longstanding effort to support law enforcement with increased training and resources.
"We've tried to give them the resources they need, as well as the accountability and training," he said. He called expanding the powers of the training council to discipline officers an effort to give law enforcement "better tools to self-monitor their own profession."
But Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, president of the Vermont Sheriff's Association, opposes the bills and says they will hurt police departments.
The professional discipline measure "steps on some of my authority to manage my own personnel," he said. He said he knows his employees best and is better suited to come up with solutions when problems arise among his 10 full-time and roughly 20 part-time deputies.
Clark also took a dim view of the measure to increase training for part-time officers. Most of the part-timers have other jobs and would struggle to get time off for 16 weeks of Police Academy training, he said. He generally tries to assign the part-timers to less sensitive roles -- directing traffic around construction sites, for example, versus the road patrols that might deal with drunken drivers and domestic violence, he said.
Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Clark's practice for part-timers is not uniform across the state.
Other professionals, from architects to doctors, "do not have a different standard based on the number of hours a person works," Waite-Simpson said. "People carrying firearms and carrying out the statutes we pass here, we expect them to be fully trained."
Clark called the training bill a solution in search of a problem.
"If the legislators could say to me that of the last 50 shootings by police officers, 49 were by part-time officers, that's a problem. But that's not been the case," he said.
Clark, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and others said top law enforcement officials are working together to come up with rewrite of the training bill that likely will call for specific training for the duties to which part-time officers are assigned. Rep. Donna Sweaney, chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee, said her committee stands ready to review such a proposal.
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