BENNINGTON — Town Manager Stuart Hurd expressed concerns Monday about the effects of proposed legislation that would allow police officers to be sued over their actions while on duty.
Echoing many police and municipal officials around Vermont, Hurd told the Bennington Select Board that he considers Senate bill S.254 “a very dangerous piece of legislation.”
The legislation is opposed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and by major police agencies in Vermont, Hurd said.
The bill would in part weaken the qualified immunity that officers now have while performing legal duties.
That change, Hurd said, would discourage applicants for applying for law enforcement openings and encourage some officers to leave during a period when many departments are struggling to fill positions.
The bill is put forth with “the idea that somehow we need to hold our police officers accountable, and those who are damaged by a police officer in an act of his duty [should have legal remedies],” he said.
This involves an assumption that people “don’t have any right to sue an officer or recover damages, which of course is not true,” Hurd said.
Individuals can under current state law “bring an action against the municipality” over an officer’s actions, he said. “They can’t get at the individual officers, but can certainly recover damages from the town, and this has been done numerous times around the state of Vermont.”
These typically are actions “that the officer took that were ultimately deemed to be constitutionally outside the law,” Hurd said.
Hurd said the bill, if it were to become law, would “place an unusual amount of liability on the individual officer,” which could go beyond constitutional issues, such as over searches and seizures.
With the proposed legislation, “you are talking about any actions” an officer might take, over which he or she might be sued, he said.
Asked about the bill, Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe said Tuesday in an email, “Yes, I have heard from our Police Department that it is concerned about its ability to recruit and retain officers.”
IN SENATE JUDICIARY
According to Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “the bill is still in committee; we have held several hearings on the bill and will be coming back to it week after next.”
He added, “As with most bills, I expect there will be several changes based on testimony from all sides. As one of the lead sponsors, I do support the effort to allow access to justice for those who have been harmed by bad faith misconduct by law enforcement officers.”
Sears reiterated a comment he made earlier in the process: “I look forward to hearing all sides of this issue, and if there are better ways to balance accountability and fair access to justice for civil rights violations, I’m listening.”
REPLY TO COMMENTS
“As far as Stu’s comments, that has certainly been one of the main reasons cited by opponents of the bill, particularly the Vermont League of Cities and Towns,” Sears said. “We asked our Legislative Council to check with the National Council of State Governments on the impact in New Mexico and Colorado, which passed bills on qualified immunity a year ago. The response was ‘it’s too soon to know.’”
Concerning the difficulties in hiring officers, Sears said, “I might add that finding workers is a national and statewide problem, not just law enforcement.”
Police departments already find it difficult to hire officers, Hurd said, because “there is a very big target on their back, in part because of the bad actions of numerous police forces” around the country.
But the result is that officers “are leaving in droves” nationwide, with some going into another type of work.
“I think the bill would be pretty damaging to our ability to recruit and retain officers, and I wanted to bring this to your attention,” he told the Select Board.
Contacted Tuesday, Hurd said in an email, “There are alternative measures that could have positive impacts on policing.”
He added, “In general, we all support increased funding for the [Vermont] Criminal Justice Council to modernize, train, and professionally regulate policing.”