MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday allowed a bill setting a standard for law enforcement use of force and deadly force to become law, asking the Legislature to make changes to the law when it returns in January.
The bill, S.119, stipulates that police may use deadly force when it is “objectively reasonable and necessary” to apprehend a suspect believed to pose an imminent threat to others, and when “an objectively reasonable law enforcement officer in the same situation would conclude that there was no reasonable alternative” that would prevent death or serious injury to the officer or others.
It also updates the state’s justifiable homicide law to remove outmoded language, and incorporates aspects of an executive order issued by Scott last month asking the Department of Public Safety and the Director of Racial Equity to report back to the Legislature on a uniform statewide model use of force policy for all law enforcement in Vermont.
The bill passed both chambers last month, with an amendment added by the state Senate delaying its effective date to July 1, 2021, so that law enforcement can train to meet the new standard.
Scott signed two other law enforcement reform bills: S.24, which calls for the Department of Corrections to update its hiring practices, and S.124, which changes the makeup of the Criminal Justice Council, places a hold on the use of facial recognition technology, and requires the Criminal Justice Council to develop a statewide police body camera policy.
Scott, in explaining his decision to the Legislature, said the the lawmaking process allowed “insufficient opportunity for the full Legislature to understand the concerns and opportunities offered by both historically disadvantaged communities and public safety officials. ... There are important terms which remain undefined and there are gaps in the legislation that raise questions about the Legislature’s intent.”
S.119 was first passed by the state Senate in June, as the Legislature acted in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd of Minneapolis, a Black American. A white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, while Floyd gasped “I can’t breathe” and pleaded for his life, has been charged with murdering Floyd.
The House made additions and changes to the bill when the Legislature returned in August. That followed three public hearings hosted by the House Judiciary Committee, in which the public was asked to testify on its interactions with law enforcement in Vermont.
Scott said the changes are needed to allow the bill to be applied clearly in the field.
“I believe with more time — and more testimony from all impacted communities — this bill can be improved before it goes into effect. Specifically, let’s work to define more clearly the ‘necessary and proportional’ terms that guide this standard, revise the standard to consider all uses of force for more consistency, and reevaluate the timeline and provide resources to ensure proper implementation and training.”
“In the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, let’s work together to ‘fight for the things (we) care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join (us).’ I believe we can do just that with this legislation. But that requires all voices to be at the table,” Scott said.
The Vermont ACLU hailed the passage of the police reform bills, especially S. 119.
“This historic legislation gives Vermont the best statewide police use of force standard in the nation and is a critical step towards reimaging the role of police in our communities. We thank the governor and the legislature for their leadership, and for listening to Vermonters who are saying loud and clear that transformational change is badly needed,” the organization said.
“Although this is a win for all Vermonters, we know that people of color and people with mental health conditions are disproportionately impacted by policing. Our continuing work to root out systemic racism in all its forms is far from over, but the enactment of S.119 is an important step to making Vermont a place that is more just and equitable for everyone who calls this state home.”