The Vermont House today advanced S.24S.119, and S.124 in a comprehensive racial justice package designed to address community concerns regarding our corrections system and police brutality and violence. 

Addressing the racial justice package, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) commented, “systemic racism stacks the rules and expectations of our society against Black, Indigenous and People of Color. In order to build a truly just and equitable society, we must be committed to breaking down structural racism. It is incumbent upon all of us to recognize it, name it, fight it, and right the centuries of wrong. People of all races, genders, and identities should feel welcome and at home in Vermont, yet in order for this to be true, there is work to be done.

These bills are a critical step by the Legislature to address the systemic racism that permeates our systems of justice, public safety, and corrections, as well as our State Government. These bills were developed in partnership with members of the BIPOC and mental health advocacy communities. Their voices are vital to this conversation, which is one of the reasons our Committees and the Social Equity Caucus did such significant outreach for testimony on these bills and at the many public hearings held over the summer. I commend the listening and work done by these Committees and the Social Equity Caucus to create a Vermont that works for all of us.”

Chair of the Social Equity Caucus, Representative Kevin (Coach) Christie (D-Hartford) added, “dismantling systemic racism isn’t accomplished in one bill, one legislative session, or one implicit bias training. It’s going to take an extended period of time, with careful examination of our policies and norms to even make a dent in righting past wrongs. The package advanced by the House today is a solid first step in elevating this conversation. The collaborative efforts of House Leadership, the Chairs of the Committees of jurisdiction, and the members of the Social Equity Caucus to prioritize these bills this year is commendable. The input from stakeholders in the BIPOC, mental health communities, and law enforcement was essential in shaping the legislation the House moved forward today. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we work in partnership with all these communities on changes that work to move Vermont forward. I’m proud the House took these small, but vital, steps today and I look forward to seeing these bills become law.”

S.24, An act relating to a report on racial equity and bias in the Department of Corrections, passed the House on a voice vote and now moves to the Senate for consideration of the House amendment.

Representative Sara Coffey (D-Guilford), member of the Committee on Corrections and Institutions noted, “this bill aims to address systemic racism and promote social equity within the Department of Corrections by focusing on training and supervision practices and shifting their focus from a model of punishment and surveillance to a human-services approach. The goal is to create a system and approach that is based in inclusive, reparative, and restorative practices with a focus on recruiting, training, and retaining a diverse and high-quality workforce.

“The bill tasks the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections to present a proposal and the outside expertise and resources needed for a long-term plan and strategy that focuses on changing the way we recruit and train our workforce with an aim of institutionalizing equity and inclusivity. Achieving equity in our society across race, class, and gender will not be achieved in three months, and will require investment if we want to see transformational change. This legislation sets the table and a direction for a process to change the culture and systems within corrections to be more equitable and just for the people who are incarcerated and for our state employees.”

S.119, An act relating to a statewide use of deadly force policy for law enforcement, passed the House on a vote of 106-37 and now moves to the Senate for consideration of the House amendment.

Speaking for the Judiciary Committee, Representative Martin Lalonde (D-South Burlington) stated, “The last time the legislature put restrictions on police use of force was in 1840, when it amended a bill providing, in part, that a law enforcement officer will be guiltless if he kills or wounds someone, to assist in serving legal process, or in suppressing opposition against him in the just and necessary discharge of his duty. This hoary and likely unconstitutional language provides lax guidelines for police use of lethal force and is in dire need of updating. S.119 modernizes statutory standards for law enforcement use of force by clarifying what Vermonters expect of law enforcement and ensuring that law enforcement officers are accountable when their use of force does not meet these expectations.

“Additionally, this bill establishes that the Department of Public Safety and Executive Director of Racial Equity will work out the details of implementing the use of force standards in a uniform state-wide policy pursuant to the Governor’s Executive Order issued this past August. Broadly, the standards provide that the use of force by law enforcement is lawful if it is ‘objectively reasonable, necessary, and proportional’ and the use of deadly force is lawful if it is ‘objectively reasonable and necessary in defense of human life.’ It is the oversight responsibility of the Legislature to create standards governing the use of force. For the most part, Vermont police already train and act in a manner consistent with these standards. But, by putting these standards in statute, they are enforceable in a court of law and have far more potential to shape police culture and provide further protections for BIPOC Vermonters.”

S.124, An act relating to governmental structures protecting the public health, safety, and welfare, passed on a voice vote and now moves to the Senate for consideration of the House amendment.

Chair of the Committee on Government Operations, Representative Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Bradford) said, “S.124 is the beginning of an ongoing process to address policing policies and training, within the larger issue of systemic racism and the experiences of BIPOC Vermonters. In considering this bill, we heard from over 90 Vermonters in public hearings and considered the input of over 1500 Vermonters who answered the survey posted by the Social Equity Caucus. The changes made in this bill are part of our ongoing efforts to ensure equity within our criminal justice system.

“With the enactment of this bill, the Criminal Justice Council, whose job it is to train and professionally regulate law enforcement officers, will now be a balanced council made up of civilians, including people representing BIPOC communities, people with lived experience with mental health conditions or psychiatric disorders, and a mental health crisis worker. The Council will recommend statewide policies on officer qualifications, testing, and training, and will be required to take input from groups representing BIPOC Vermonters and Vermonters with lived experience of a mental health condition. The Council will also propose policies on use of body cams, surplus military equipment and facial recognition technology.

“The bill strengthens the data we’re collecting on quality of life in Vermont, adding indicators for Vermonters who are BIPOC so that we have an ongoing understanding of the well-being of ALL our neighbors. Additionally, the bill prompts a report back to the Legislature on models of civilian oversight of police conduct. Because transparency goes hand-in-hand with the trust we need to have in our law enforcement community, we’ll also ask for a report back on how the public should have access to allegations of police misconduct. Vermonters have asked for a stern look at whether we are doing everything we can to ensure all Vermonters are treated equitably by our police. S.124 makes many important steps to achieve that equity.”