Unanimous consent for police reform bills in state Senate

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MONTPELIER — A pair of bills that would redefine the proper use of deadly force by police in Vermont, mandate data reporting and the use of body cameras, and criminalize the use of improper restraints rolled through the state Senate on Tuesday morning without a single "no" vote.

The bills, S. 119 and S. 219, both approved by roll call votes, now await a formal third reading by the Senate. If they pass as expected, they'll move on to consideration by the state House of Representatives.

State Sen. Richard Sears (D-Bennington), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in introducing the two bills that they are the continuation of efforts to address racism in Vermont, but emphasized that the committee's work is far from over. "This is a beginning, not an end," he said.

A number of bills seeking reforms of police practices were already before the House and Senate when, on May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. It touched off wide-spread protests around the United States and all over the world, decrying police brutality against African Americans and people of color and calling for immediate reform.

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Shortly thereafter, Senate President Pro Tem Timothy Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) announced that passing legislation mandating body cameras and race data reporting and outlawing chokeholds would be a priority for the state Senate. Working on a short timeline, the Senate's Judiciary and Government Operations committees took testimony from law enforcement representatives, state officials, and civil and human rights activists to coalesce several of the proposed reforms into multiple bills.

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The two bills coalesce a number of those proposed reforms. While the collection of race data on traffic stops is already expected, S. 219 makes it mandatory for the collection and reporting of that data, as well as the use of police body cameras. In S. 119, a statewide use of deadly force policy is established with the expectation that force be proportional to the situation and that the use of deadly force be "necessary" rather than "reasonable" to protect human life.

The "intent" preamble of the bill. added as an amendment Monday, lays out that the Legislature wants law enforcement agencies to "use community policing strategies that develop collaborative partnerships between law enforcement and communities, adopt policies and practices that reflect a guardian mindset towards the citizens they serve, and establish a culture of transparency and accountability to promote public safety and foster public trust. To this end, it is the intent of the General Assembly that law enforcement use de-escalation strategies first and foremost before using force in every community-police interaction."

One change is expected in S. 219 for its third reading. An amendment by state Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) would direct that data to be collected by the state Attorney General's office, rather than a vendor. That amendment will be taken up by the Judiciary Committee with Ingram invited to testify to its intent, Sears said.

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Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman called the bills "a strong step towards long needed reforms" supported by the state's Black, Indigenous and person of color communities.

"It is time for our laws to reflect our values," said Zuckerman, a Progressive seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. "Limiting the use of force and holding our public safety officers accountable is required to rebuild trust in the system. Without that mutual respect and accountability we have seen the system struggle and too many have died or been murdered without reason. This legislation will put Vermont out in front, but there is still more work to be done."

Greg Sukienik is Vermont Statehouse Editor for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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