New standards on bias-free policing hailed as positive step

Merkel

Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel is among those who attended the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council meeting Tuesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

PITTSFORD — Nearly three dozen people, a handful of them sporting uniforms in navy or hunter green, sat around a classroom at the Vermont Fire Academy and parsed a seven-page document.

The document, by the end of the day Tuesday, was the new policy on fair and impartial policing that will be a baseline requirement for all law enforcement agencies in the state.

A 2014 state law says they all must adopt policies on unbiased policing by July 1. The Legislature instructed the 14-member Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to draft a model policy, which it did with the involvement of stakeholder groups.

The council’s final meeting before the deadline drew significant attendance as advocates and law enforcement agents hammered out solutions to remaining sticking points, which largely centered on what role Vermont police should play in enforcing immigration status.

Advocates with the group Migrant Justice appealed for language in the policy to provide greater protections for residents who are in the country illegally.

Two U.S. Border Patrol agents who attended said they came to inform the council on “who we are and what we do and … what threats we’re looking at.”

“Objective one is combating terrorism,” said John Pfeifer, chief patrol agent of the Swanton sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Pfeifer told the group that in monitoring some 295 miles of the international border, the priority is not to clamp down on farmworkers who are unauthorized immigrants.

“Absolutely our priority is this,” Pfeifer said, gesturing to a poster of six images taken by surveillance cameras along the border, all depicting what he called “getaway traffic.” The images, which Pfeifer requested the media not photograph, depicted figures clad in military fatigues walking through high grass, and a person in a camouflage suit and night vision goggles.

“We don’t have time to target domestic people that are working on dairy farms,” Pfeifer said. “We just don’t have the resources.”

“And yet it happens,” said Rachel Siegel, executive director of the Vermont Peace and Justice Center. Pfeifer’s colleague, Patrol Agent Sean McVey, replied that it happens less than 5 percent of the time.

Also at the meeting was Lorenzo Alcudia, a Mexican citizen who was detained after a routine traffic stop in February 2015 by a member of the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department.

Alcudia took his case to the Vermont Human Rights Commission, which found reasonable grounds that the officer discriminated against him. The department recently agreed to pay a $30,000 settlement in the case.

Migrant Justice

Will Lambek, center, of Migrant Justice, was one of several advocates who spoke during a meeting Tuesday on fair and impartial policing policies. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Will Lambek, of Migrant Justice, read from the Human Rights Commission decision in Alcudia’s case. The ruling, he said, is “something that we should be paying close attention to.”

Over the course of nearly six hours Tuesday, the council went through the draft policy section by section, taking final input from advocates. The council reached agreement in the afternoon.

Now all law enforcement entities in the state, ranging from local constables to the Vermont State Police, must make sure their policies include the key elements of the council’s standards.

Advocates said they support the final policy but would like to see further consideration of the issues in the future.

“We see the policy as a step forward,” Lambek said, adding, “It goes a long way toward closing loopholes that were in the previous version.”

However, Lambek said there are still sections the group would like to see incorporated.

“We feel that the specter of border security is used too widely as a pretext to justify discrimination against members of our community,” Lambek said.

Richard Gauthier, executive director of the training council, said Wednesday that he believes the final policy addresses concerns about bias in policing while retaining law enforcement’s ability “to address bad conduct and bad people.”

Gauthier said the council valued input from advocates about the policy. In the final discussions about enforcement of immigration laws, he said, there were concerns about security.

Richard Gauthier

Richard Gauthier, executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, center, sits with Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell, the council chair, during Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

“The point we tried to make time and time again was, the closer you move toward making Vermont a true sanctuary state, the closer you come to giving sanctuary for some bad people,” Gauthier said.

Jay Diaz, an attorney with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed the council’s adoption of the policy as a “positive step in the right direction” and said the six-month drafting process was collaborative and very responsive to the concerns of the advocates at the table.

Diaz said the policy has not addressed all of the ACLU’s concerns. “It leaves a lot of loopholes for the minority of officers who may wish to punish an undocumented person who has really not done anything criminal,” Diaz said.

Overall, however, Diaz said it was clear that many of the people at the meeting shared common goals.

“There was a good expression of, ‘We don’t want to be in the business of civil immigration enforcement, and we don’t want to be profiling people based upon their race,’” Diaz said.

Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell, who chairs the council, said Wednesday that the final policy is a good step. “I think it was a good collaboration by all the stakeholders and the result will be one that law enforcement can certainly work with,” Brickell said.

He said that like other criminal justice policies on the books, the fair and impartial policing policy will likely be revisited and updated.

Policies “change with the times, they change with society, they change with law enforcement needs,” Brickell said.

Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, who was a lead sponsor of the 2014 legislation, attended the meeting Tuesday. She said drafting the policy is just one part of an iterative process.

“The challenges around immigration and what is happening on a federal level are going to need to be continually processed, evaluated,” Morris said.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • robert bristow-johnson

    although i do not dispute the fact of the need for “bias-free policing”, i can’t, for the life of me, understand *why* the need. especially in the context of a nation of laws, and in the context of the location in space and time of this.

    Vermont in 2016 should not be having a problem with racial bias or racial *anything* in the adoption, discernment, adjudication, and application of law. (we ain’t Alabama and the year ain’t 1930.) how is it that we *do* have such a problem?

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