The Vermont House approved police reform legislation Friday that requires all state police to wear body cameras, prohibits officers from using chokeholds and other similar restraint techniques, while also mandating that the Legislature pass additional criminal and racial justice measures in August and in the coming years.
The House passed S.219 and the Senate concurred on slight changes as the Legislature ended its remaining business Friday — just three days after the upper chamber first progressed the bill and lawmakers had vowed to respond swiftly to the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last month.
“We as a state came together with this bill,” Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-White River Junction, the lone Black member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Friday. “It is meant as a step to create change, and I repeat a step. This is truly a proud moment.”
On the House floor, Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, who in 2018 became the first active state trooper to become a House member, said it is every lawmaker’s responsibility to begin dismantling systemic racism and that this bill is one part in beginning that work.
“This one single bill is not a cure-all for the megalith that is systemic racism but it is one of many steps that must be taken,” said Hashim, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.
Two key House committees signed off on the bill late Thursday evening, making slight changes to the Senate-passed version but for hours Friday afternoon and in the evening the Senate and the House debated what the final version of S.219 would look like — with both chambers making changes in order to agree on the legislation.
House lawmakers added provisions that require the Legislature to work in August to create a statewide model policy for the use of body cameras, as well as to continue to analyze the creation of a new crime for police who use prohibited restraints that cause death or serious injury.
The legislation requires Vermont State Police officers wear body cameras starting on Aug. 1. while lawmakers and stakeholders work to establish a policy to govern the use of the technology.
Currently, local police departments are not covered by the legislation, but the Senate lawmakers are hopeful the U.S. Congress, which is considering its own police reforms, will soon approve funding for more local departments to purchase the equipment.
If funding is approved, the Legislature is expected to broaden the mandate to include local police.
The legislation also prohibits law enforcement officers from using restraints that apply pressure to “the neck, throat, windpipe, or carotid artery that may prevent or hinder breathing, reduce intake of air, or impede the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain.”
The heart of the legislation — and the most controversial aspect of it — is that officers who use such restraints that result in injury or death could be found guilty of a new crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison, or a $50,000 fine.
House members were divided over the new crime, and put in place a compromise that would make it effective Oct. 1 of this year but automatically repealed it as of July 1, 2021, and would require lawmakers work with the attorney general, the defender general and others to revise the law before that date.
Judiciary Vice Chair Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, said he was concerned with creating any new law that makes it easier to prosecute any individual regardless of “the demographic.”
Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, who said he did not feel the new criminal penalty for law enforcement is “ready for prime time,” supported removing it in order to hear more testimony in August to work on the state’s “justifiable homicide” statute.
“I’m very committed to continue to work on this, I just don’t think it’s ready at this point,” LaLonde said.
Rep. Will Notte, D-Rutland, said he would prefer to see the criminal penalty for the use of prohibited restraints remain in the bill, adding that he was “not sold” on the need to set a repeal date and was concerned what message it would send to Vermonters
“There are people throughout this state who have met, who have continued to protest, who have said this needs to be done,” Notte said.
“They are looking at it quite possibly and saying ‘they are so disconnected from this, they are so unsold on the need for this that they’ve got a sunset that’s almost immediately following the passage of the law — what kind of crock is this,’” he added.
The House also set a July 1, 2021, sunset for the justifiable homicide law that is currently on the books — which ensures an individual can kill or wound a person legally under certain circumstances, including self defense.
Lawmakers in both chambers have said the Legislature must immediately begin work amending this law when they return in August with specific concern with the statute’s provision that civil officers, members of the military and “private soldiers” who lawfully are called on to suppress “riot or rebellion” are protected from homicide charges.
In addition, S.219 ties state grant funding for law enforcement agencies to compliance with race data collection of traffic stops, but several Democratic House members said they would like to expand the circumstances under which information is recorded.
“It’s called ‘Walking While Black and Brown’ and I have too many stories that express that phenomenon,” Rep. Hal Colston, the only Black member of the House Committee on Government Operations, said Thursday in support of collecting data on street interactions.
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