Vermont legislature plans to end qualified immunity for police officers

Dick Sear
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, discusses a bill before the committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on February 13, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont lawmakers and police reform advocates are proposing to end qualified immunity for police officers, a widespread legal doctrine that protects officials from lawsuits for violating citizens’ civil rights on the job.

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 the doctrine remains in place, they argue, police can act with impunity and citizens — especially people of color — can mistrust 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 police.

State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, leads the bill with three cosponsors: Sen. 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 Legislative Assembly in recent years, but in its work on the issue, “one of those gaps we found in Vermont was in the ‘access to justice’.

“The courts have created this disconnect by making it very difficult for victims of police misconduct to spend their day in court, even when that misconduct causes serious harm,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday. organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which supports the bill.

Sears said Wednesday that the bill is modeled after 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 watered down by aggressive lobbying by police and labor unions. They say ending qualified immunity would amount to potential financial ruin for police officers who are brought to justice and lead to leaving 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 that sentiment, saying at Wednesday’s press conference that “the end of qualified immunity won’t open the door to law enforcement.”

“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” police departments that are “working earnestly to repair 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 experience excessive police force. Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland area branch of the NAACP, said ending qualified immunity for police in Vermont would send the message to all Vermonters “that accountability 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 conversation”. And I, too, had that with my children,” she said. “This discourse is common in black and brown communities because we know that the institution of the police and their lack of accountability with laws such as qualified immunity do 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 that there are issues of excessive force and racial bias in policing, but that the League supports “less drastic means” to solve the problem. .

She cited past legislation to invest in additional training for officers, inclusive hiring practices and the expansion of the state Criminal Justice Board. She said she recognizes that public trust in the police is an issue and that body cameras help increase transparency and accountability.

It is not just the police who are protected by qualified immunity; the doctrine also applies to public servants, school board members, firefighters and others. Horn said the League is concerned that the end of qualified immunity for police will lead to setbacks for others on the line – a classic slippery slope.

“It’s a very important service base in local government and Vermont state government,” she said. “So we think it’s important, very important to keep that standard in place and basically take a different approach to approaching the issue (of police reform).”

The Vermont Troopers Association has in the past opposed calls to end qualified immunity for police, but a phone message left with a representative of the group was not returned Wednesday.

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