Lawmakers hear testimony on police reform

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Readers:  This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. Saturday to correct the name of Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

MONTPELIER — Curtiss Reed Jr. once disagreed with state Sen. Jeanette White on whether the state needed to mandate police policies standardizing the use of force and data collection.

That was 10 years ago. On Friday, testifying in such a proposal before the senate judiciary committee, Reed said he now agrees the state needs to set policies and enforce them.

"I was a strong advocate at the time that you can't legislate leadership," Reed, who said he has experienced racial profiling in Vermont as an individual and as a parent, told the committee in online testimony. "I strongly felt that the leadership of the Vermont State Police would be a beacon around which other law enforcement would then rally behind in terms of more modern practices."

Reed, the executive director of the Brattleboro-based Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, said in hindsight, mandates were the better path.

"We should have legislated those matters. And therein lies the challenge," Reed told the committee. "We have 40-plus [police] departments, each one operating out of a different culture."

That said, Reed is confident that proposed state mandates in Senate bill 219 on use of force policies, race data collection and body camera use can work, given Vermont's relatively small size.

And that needs to happen, he added, so that people of color in Vermont — residents and visitors alike — can feel safe across the entire state.

"There are certain areas of the state I avoid" because a culture of profiling people of color remains in place, Reed said.

The Judiciary Committee, chaired by state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, heard Friday from witnesses on S.219, a bill originally tying eligibility for grant funding to compliance with reporting race data in traffic stops and use of force. As of Friday, the working draft included provisions for a statewide use for force policy, bans on choke holds and other improper head and neck restraints, and a mandate for the use of body cameras.

State Senate President Pro Tem Timothy Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, wants a bill ready by the Legislature's scheduled June adjournment that provides statewide police policies on use of force, cross-cultural awareness and de-escalation, and a statewide mandate on the use of body cameras.

The Judiciary Committee was urged to go farther with S.219 by its first witness of the morning.

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"This bill falls short of the systemic changes we need to see," said Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. "We have long over-relied on the police to respond to community issues that are beyond their capacity: mental illness, homelessness, community crisis and poverty. We need to invest resources to address these issues directly and to stop criminalizing our citizens."

Yang also called for "a civilian oversight board and/or independent entity" outside the state AG's office to review police use of force. She said the the State Police Advisory Commission which is appointed by the Governor's office, "[does] not represent the people of Vermont."

"A civilian oversight board should be selected from community members such as the NAACP, Disability Rights Vermont, Migrant Justice, and other advocacy groups in addition to the Governor and Legislature," Yang said. "This board must represent the people who are most vulnerable to police use of force."

Testifying Thursday and Friday, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said that Vermont is "closer to the goal posts" than other states due to its earlier work on fair and impartial policing, via Act 54 of 2017. That said, "We are now at an inflection point" in response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis Police officer on May 25. "Rather than walking toward the future we need to run toward the future as quickly as possible."

Schirling told the Judiciary Committee on Friday that in 2018, Vermont State Police responded to 117,711 events, and that of that number, 223 involved force of any kind and 163 involved control and restraint. That same year, troopers discharged their tasers 15 times, used pepper spray 10 times, used K-9 units 6 times and discharged firearms 4 times.

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"We still have much progress that needs to be made but the distance we've got to move down the field is quite different than many other places," he said.

But Schirling met with some resistance when he suggested that the bill's language direct law enforcement to employ "best practices" rather than use the law to mandate more specific standards. "We are not trying to shirk the need for oversight - we embrace that - but if it's memorialized in a statutory framework it inhibits our ability to improve it on an ongoing basis," he said.

State Sen. Philp Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, disagreed with what he called Schirling's "framing" of the problem, saying it was "designed to let the air out of the balloon and say we don't really have an urgent problem."

Body camera footage of an on-duty Burlington Police officer injuring a Congolese immigrant at a city bar last fall shows a different picture, Baruth said.

"And that officer [Sgt. Jason Bellavance] is still working at the Burlington Police Department," Baruth said. "That officer should have been fired immediately. ... That's what's driving this bill. 'Best practice' doesn't get results."

Schirling replied that incident points to another issue not addressed by the bill — how to adjust labor laws to protect police officers' statutory and collectively bargained labor rights, while providing the flexibility to address repeated or gross violations of policy.

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"You cannot summarily fire an employee," Schirling said. "As a general rule we do need overhaul [the law] to allow flexibility to jettison people who are incongruent to the way we should be doing business in the 21st century. I would submit there is nothing in S.219 that would allow that."

Reed said when he moved to Brattleboro in 1979, he quickly met most of the town's police officers — because at the time, there was a policy of profiling people of color who visited town. Similar profiling was taking place when Reed's oldest son starting driving 10 years ago, he said. "[He was] stopped I can't tell you how many times," Reed said.

State Sen Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, asked Reed why the climate in Brattleboro has since changed.

"Very clearly, yes. It's called leadership," Reed said, citing Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald's efforts in changing the department's culture.

Witnesses also addressed the practical implications of expanding and mandating data collection across the state.

Schirling reported that the Department of Public Safety is closing in on a preferred vendor to provide technology for data reporting, which will also be made available to the public. And Reed, while noting the differences in police department culture across the state, noted that S.219 provides a stick — the potential loss of funding — that will assure compliance with data collection and reporting.

But Etan Nasreddin-Longo, chair of the Racial Disparities Advisory Panel, raised an important question about data collection: Who will do the collecting?

Nasreddin-Longo noted that the Vermont State Police has one person who handles data as a sideline aside from her main role. If data collection is mandated, funding needs to follow so departments of all sizes can comply, he said

"The outcome of this can easily be some departments will be well-behaved and others will be the poor relation from the country that will be underfunded," he said.

Reed also suggested that the Criminal Justice Training Council, which runs the Vermont Police Academy, should be brought under the leadership of a state department rather than remain independent.

"Currently as written they don't report to anyone except themselves. I think they need to fall underneath the executive branch," he said. "That for me is a loose link in the criminal justice system. We want them to do training, design training, deliver training — but they're not beholden to any state agency. "


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