BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – Vermont lawmakers return to the Statehouse next week. Police reform and accountability will be front and center.
Perhaps nowhere in Vermont more than in Burlington has there been a discussion about what role police should play in a community and how to hold them accountable.
A decades-long discussion on police reform gathered momentum following the murder of George Floyd. It inspired protests in Burlington two summers ago, in which protesters occupied a park for a month.
“The momentum we had, the allies we had, we don’t keep it,” said Zoraya Hightower of P-Burlington City Council.
Ben & Jerry’s organized an effort to recreate that momentum at a rally in Burlington on Wednesday, bringing together lawmakers, business owners and activists.
This was right next to a 2018 incident where then-officer Jason Bellavance used force against Jeremie Meli. Bellavance was disciplined and left the ministry, but he was protected from civil suit under the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.
During this session, the Legislative Assembly sought to eliminate this protection for the police.
“It’s just about letting someone who feels they’ve been abused have their day in court and let a jury decide,” said Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen.
Police objected to the issue and said it would aggravate staffing issues. But activists say it only targets bad cops.
“It is critical that we continue to move forward to achieve real, updated law enforcement reform,” said Kiah Morris, executive director of Rights & Democracy.
Before the Town Meeting Day break, Vermont lawmakers scaled back the proposal. Under the new bill, the police could still be sued, but their employer – the town or city – would pay the awarded damages instead of the individual agent.
“Focusing on qualified immunity isn’t going to build that trust with the community,” said South Burlington city manager Jessie Baker, who is also president of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Baker says if communities are forced to defend lawsuits against cops, it will distract from other meaningful policing reforms.
“We are potentially taking money away from these mental health services and these addiction treatment services,” she said.
Lawmakers agree these reforms are important, but say qualified immunity is part of a package of reforms needed to build confidence, including more training, alternative responses to mental health appeals and policy review on drugs.
“We need policies to create fairness in our justice system at all levels,” said Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington.
About the new proposal that lawmakers will pass next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from many Vermonters. But Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said she did not support the new proposal to shift financial responsibility to individual officers.
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