Crime and Justice

Legislative leaders signal unwillingness to consider defunding state police

defund police sign
Roughly 5,000 people gathered in Montpelier to denounce police violence and call for reforms at a demonstration on June 7, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

As momentum grows across the country for cities and states to defund law enforcement departments, Democratic leaders in Vermont’s Legislature signaled this week they are unlikely to take up a proposal to cut the Vermont State Police budget by 20% for the next fiscal year.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said this week that despite national calls to cut funding for police in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the proposal may not work in Vermont.

On Wednesday, three progressive members in the Vermont House of Representatives sent a letter to Johnson and key committee chairs calling on the lower chamber to slash spending on the Vermont State Police’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year by 20%.

For the past several fiscal years, the Vermont State Police budget has hovered around $70 million with around half of the money coming from the general fund. For the next fiscal year, the Scott administration has asked for a state police budget of $74 million.

“We believe it is time for Vermont to join the growing movement to defund police departments, in light of the historic, systematic racism and other forms of bias that are well-documented in policing and use of force,” Reps. Selene Colburn, Brian Cina and Diana González wrote.

“We have an opportunity to strategically align our resources with services that are better able to meet the needs of our communities and keep all Vermonters safe,” they added.

In the proposal, $14 million would be available, and could be diverted towards investment in mental health crisis response services, increased support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, as well as economic development in minority communities.

“It's one thing to say that, to communicate as part of this national discussion, but how you actually implement such a proposal is not a one size fits all," Ashe told VTDigger Thursday.

Earlier in the week, Johnson said that defunding the state police is “not a place that I want to go initially.” 

“I’d like to see what exactly they’re proposing to cut from the police department,” Johnson said.

“We have a very different law enforcement structure than a lot of other states. So that’s an example where they’ve taken sort of a national checklist of proposals, brought it to Vermont, and because of the very small size of our state and of all of our municipalities our law enforcement looks really different than it does in other states,” the House speaker said. 

Mitzi Johnson and Tim Ashe
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe before the start of the 2020 session. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

On Thursday, Ashe discussed defunding police departments, saying that Vermont has already started to make sure there is more financial support for mental health experts. 

“I do want to emphasize that our investments in mental health in recent years, well not sufficient to dig out of a hole that really developed over a long period of time, is a piece of reducing the need for law enforcement to be essentially mental health workers on so many calls,” he said.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, who is the chair of the Progressive Party, said in an interview Friday that he believes discussing the best use of state funds “is a good conversation to have” but that for now, at least, it is unlikely to receive the full attention of the Senate.

“I don't think it's going to be in the top of anybody's list, to tell the honest truth, in terms of the powers that be in the Senate,” Pollina said.

“The Vermont State Police is not the problem the way it is in Minneapolis and some other places around the country but it's really worth taking a look at how we want to use our resources that we do have,” he added. “I don't think that the state police should see this as a threat as much as seen as a good conversation that needs to happen.”

While the Vermont Legislature is unlikely to take up the issue of budget cuts to the state’s law enforcement in the coming months, the Senate is looking to pass legislation, S.219, to establish a statewide model on police use of force, that would tie compliance to state grant eligibility. 

This could potentially include mandating the use of body cameras for all law enforcement in the state, prohibit police chokeholds and other violent forms of restraint and develop improved guidelines for the collection of traffic stop race data.

Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling on Sept. 6, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said that he hopes to be able to move the legislation — which is partially based on California’s police use-of-force measure — out of committee by next Friday. 

“I know that’s a tight timeline for the committee,” he said Thursday. “We are limited in the amount of time to get this bill so that the House can at least look at it in a timely manner.”

The Senate Committee on Government Operations is also working to move out legislation by next Friday on proper training and discipline for improper conduct by law enforcement.

Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, presented the committee with an initial 10 point draft document about how law enforcement agencies intend to address systemic racism and implement reform.

“This is work that's been going on for a long time,” Schirling said. 

“The pace has not been fast enough. And this is an opportunity at a point of inflection where accelerating the pace of change and accelerating our efforts at modernizing what we do in policing and criminal justice more broadly, and as a society even more broadly, is essential,” he said.

Schirling said the department supports the creation of statewide uniform use of force policy for law enforcement and added that the Vermont State Police “have committed” to having all officers have body cameras this year.

Ashe added Thursday that the upper chamber will continue work to ensure mental health experts and not police officers are the ones who interact in high tensions situations, when applicable.

"I think our emphasis in the time we have remaining is going to be really to support appropriate mental health training and the mental health workforce that can help de escalate many of these situations," he said.

Pollina said that while the immediate criminal and racial justice reform legislation is targeted specifically at use of force tactics and cultural training for law enforcement, he is hopeful that the broader discussion about state funding continues in the coming legislative session.

“This is not a conversation that's going to end anytime soon,” he said. “I think it's a conversation that's just beginning and it's an important one.

Xander Landen contributed reporting

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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