Vermont lawmakers and police reform advocates are proposing to end qualified immunity for police officers, a widespread legal doctrine that protects public servants from prosecution for violating the civil rights of citizens in the workplace.
Lawyers say qualified immunity makes it virtually impossible to take legal action against a police officer who uses excessive force against a citizen. As long as doctrine remains in place, they argue, police can act with impunity and citizens – especially people of color – can be wary of officers.
Now, as the Vermont Legislature prepares for its 2022 session, lawmakers will consider ending the doctrine (as it applies to police) statewide. Supporters of the bill say it is a step towards police accountability as the country continues to reckon with the deaths of George Floyd and others at the hands of the police.
State Senator Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is leading the bill with three co-sponsors: Senator Becca Balint, D-Windham; Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden; and Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden. Sears said the proposal is an extension of police accountability measures already passed by the legislature in recent years, but in its work on the issue, “one of those gaps we found in Vermont was access. to justice “.
“The courts have created this gap by making it very difficult for victims of police misconduct to appear in court, even when the misconduct causes serious harm,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday. by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which supports the bill.
Sears said Wednesday that the bill is modeled on similar legislation passed in Colorado. According to the Washington Post, dozens of states have attempted to pass similar bills, but most have been defeated or weakened by aggressive lobbying by police and unions. They say ending qualified immunity would amount to potential financial ruin for police officers who are brought to justice, and that it would drive worried police officers out of the profession en masse.
Diane Goldstein, who is the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Project and has worked in law enforcement for 21 years, countered this sentiment, saying at Wednesday’s press conference that “the end of qualified immunity will not open the season to the police “.
“It will simply allow judges to hear the facts of the most egregious cases, which currently give the public the impression that the police are, in fact, above the law,” she said.
With qualified immunity still intact in most states, she said, the doctrine “only undermines” the police services that “seriously work to mend the damaged relationships within the communities we protect and serve. “.
In Vermont and across the country, people of color are disproportionately targeted during police stops and are subjected to excessive force by police. Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland region branch of the NAACP, said ending qualified immunity for Vermont police would send the message to all Vermonters “that the responsibility exists, that there will be, from now on, consequences for actions “.
“For generations, parents of black and brown children have given their children specific instructions on what to do when they encounter the police. This is called “the speech”. And I too had that with my children, ”she said. “This rhetoric is rife in black and brown communities because we know that the institution of the police, and its lack of accountability with laws such as qualified immunity, does not protect our very lives.”
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, on the other hand, opposes ending qualified immunity for police. Karen Horn, the League’s director of public policy and advocacy, told VTDigger in an interview Wednesday afternoon that the League recognizes there are issues of excessive force and racial bias in the police, but the League supported “less drastic means” to solve the problem. .
She cited previous legislation to invest in additional training for officers, inclusive hiring practices and the expansion of the state Criminal Justice Council. She said she recognized that public confidence in the police was an issue and that body cameras helped increase transparency and accountability.
It is not only the police who are protected by qualified immunity; the doctrine also applies to civil servants, members of school boards, firefighters and others. Horn said the League feared that ending qualified immunity for police could lead to setbacks for others down the line – a classic slippery slope.
“It’s a very important base of service in local government and the state government of Vermont,” she said. “So we think it’s important, very important to keep this standard in place and, essentially, to take a different approach to solving the problem (of police reform). “
In the past, the Vermont Troopers Association has opposed calls to end qualified police immunity, but a phone message left with a representative of the group was not returned on Wednesday.
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