Police reform plan demands end to qualified immunity

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MONTPELIER — The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that it and numerous other advocacy groups have endorsed a 10-point plan for police reforms ahead of a public forum on police interactions with Vermonters.

The plan calls for ending qualified immunity for police officers, abolishing school resource officers, limiting police involvement in low-level offenses, increasing transparency on investigations of police misconduct, and investing in communities instead of policing.

"It is time to demand that our laws and our investments match our values as Vermonters, and to affirm that Black Lives Matter," the proposal says. "Local and state policymakers must prioritize people and communities, not policing and prisons."

Qualified immunity for government officials is a legal precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983, in Harlow v. Fitzgerald. It shields government employees when accountability when they are guilty of constitutional misconduct. It's been widely criticized as a legal loophole that has allowed police to avoid prosecution for violating constitutional rights.

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The proposal comes as two committees of the Vermont House of Representatives are hosting the first of three virtual sessions to obtain community input on police reform, to be streamed live at 1 p.m. Thursday. The sessions, hosted by the House Government Operations and Judiciary committees, will include opportunities for Vermonters to speak to their experiences with police and offer suggestions for potential reforms. Additional sessions will be held Aug. 12 at 6 p.m. and Aug. 16 at 4 p.m.

Participants are asked to register in advance and invited to complete a survey on their experiences with police.

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"As a state, we need to do more than talk about making real change," added NAACP Windham County Branch President Steffen Gillom. "We need to be creating real change by creating ecosystems that give the most marginalized folks a fair shot at getting justice no matter the color of their skin, the cadence of their speech, or their family or origin. It's the responsibility of our lawmakers to spearhead the creation of that change."

The plan also calls for ending police purchase of military equipment, prohibiting new and invasive surveillance technologies, requiring independent counsel outside the state's attorneys and the attorney general's offices to review and prosecute police misconduct, requiring "robust, system-wide data collection and analysis" from all aspects of the criminal justice system, establishing community control over law enforcement, and ending collective bargaining agreement provisions that limit oversight and accountability.

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Former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Rights & Democracy said the data and narratives of those negatively affected by policing "requires a dismantlement and reimagining of our relationship to law enforcement. For too long, policing has been used as a mechanism of institutionalized violence against those with the least means to fight back."

The plan was also signed by Justice for All, Migrant Justice, Outright Vermont, Pride Center of Vermont, Rights and Democracy, the Vermont Branches of the NAACP, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Vermont Center for Independent Living, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, the Vermont Human Rights Commission, Vermont Legal Aid, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and Women's Justice and Freedom Initiative.

"We must transform the role of police in our society by ending dangerous legal standards like qualified immunity and reducing the footprint of law enforcement in over-policed communities," ACLU of Vermont executive director James Lyall said. "It's time to invest in our people and communities, not policing and prisons."

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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