Amid pressure from community groups representing migrant workers, House lawmakers this week moved forward with a bill aimed at rooting out police bias.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday briefly discussed a measure they hope will pass this session that requires all law enforcement agencies to adopt one of two bias-free policing policies.
It also requires all law enforcement to collect roadside stop data, including drivers’ gender, age, ethnicity and race.
The bill is a follow-up to Act 134, the 2012 law that required law enforcement agencies to adopt bias-free policing policies by Jan. 1, 2013. Very few have done so, legislators have learned.
This bill will enforce that ignored mandate and create uniform standards for police protocol statewide, said Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg.
“I think having a policy is fundamentally very important because it lays out the parameters through which we have essentially a single set of standards across the state,” Lippert said.
The bill will still allow people to bring complaints about alleged biased policing to the Human Rights Commission, he said, and having policies will give a clearer standard against which to measure police performance.
Community leaders who urged legislators to strengthen Act 134 this session said the bill is a compromise but goes a long way toward their goal of ensuring that police treat all people fairly.
Currently, there is no single entity monitoring whether departments have a policy, which lawmakers discovered is part of reason it is so difficult to determine whether police have adopted bias-free policing policies.
Lippert secured an exemption from the mid-session deadline to pass bills across chambers because his committee was waiting for a study analyzing Vermont police data. Although the study is not complete, Lippert on Tuesday said the committee plans to move ahead with this bill, hopefully attaching it to another piece of legislation.
The bill requires all law enforcement agencies to adopt either the current Vermont State Police bias-free policing policy or the most current policy of the Attorney General’s Office.
The bill calls for all law enforcement agencies to report to the Criminal Justice Training Council which policy they have adopted and the council will then determine annually if officers have received training on bias-free policing, the bill says.
The bill calls for the council to then report to the Legislature which departments and officers adopted policies and received training.
The bill also calls for every state, local, county and municipal law enforcement agency to collect roadside stop data, including age, gender, race and ethnicity of drivers.
Existing law encouraged police to collect data but does not require it.
The bill calls for agencies to work with the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to collect uniform data, adopt storage methods and ensure the data can be analyzed. The data will be public.
If a law enforcement agency does not adopt a policy by Sept. 1, that agency will adopt the attorney general’s policy by default, the bill says.
The Burlington-based group Migrant Justice, which advocates on behalf of Vermont’s migrant farmworkers, released a statement over the weekend and sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to strengthen and clarify the law before the session ends.
“With the clock ticking on the 2014 legislature, community leaders … are hopeful the Legislature can take action on a law that was passed two years ago and yet has not been monitored or enforced,” wrote Abel Luna, campaign coordinator at Migrant Justice.
Representatives from that group and others visited the committee in March to testify about instances they say police acted in a biased manner, unfairly targeting undocumented workers.
“There is a growing negative bias-related experience with police based on the color of your skin, our youths’ fear continues to increase with the local and national growing mistrust of law enforcement and communities in our backyard cannot wait for action to enforce ACT 134,” the letter to lawmakers said.
Migrant Justice said it believes the majority of the more-than 70 law enforcement agencies in the state have no policy or are using outdated bias-free policies.
They criticized the current bias-free law for failing to collect stop data as well as failing to have consequences for failing to adopt a policy.
Luna said he met with Lippert and other lawmakers several days ago and although the bill is not exactly what his group and other community groups hoped for, he believes it is an excellent compromise.
“We have seen a lot of progress since we started pushing for this,” Luna said.
Luna said one additional measure community groups hoped to see was a provision about when a police officer can ask someone for their documents.
Luna said training has made a positive difference in how police deal with people they might suspect of being undocumented.
“The training has enabled them to really distinguish when to ask somebody for documents and when not to and how to distinguish between,” he said.
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.