Vermonters called for significant police reforms during a public forum Thursday, with residents seeking an end to qualified immunity for officers, the elimination of school resource officer programs and reforms to police training.
The House Judiciary Committee held the public forum Thursday afternoon. About a dozen people spoke, with all but most calling for reform. Two Burlington police officers criticized the police reform proposal.
Allene Swienckowsk, of Hartford, said the Hartford committee on racial equity and inclusion is concerned about police anti-bias training, which she said is not effective.
“They function in an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality,” she said. “Therefore, something has to change.”
Reier Erickson, a founding member of Neighbors for a Safer St. Albans, called for officers to be removed from schools. He noted that the committee had asked people of color to speak about how they want police to interact with their communities.
“I don’t want police to interact with my community,” he said. “I don’t want community policing, I don’t want police speaking to my kids, trying to play basketball with them, etc. Police need to earn the public’s trust before they get to do that. And it’s not the responsibility of the community to trust the police, it’s up to the police to gain the community’s trust.”
Hana Saydek, of Burlington, said they have never felt safe or protected by Vermont law enforcement.
“I do not believe that incremental reforms mean that the voices of those most harmed and vulnerable are being heard,” Saydek said. “Defunding with the goal of abolition is what will actually protect us.”
Only two of those who testified — both of whom are Burlington Police officers — criticized current police reform efforts.
Joe Corrow, a Burlington officer who community members wanted fired for his involvement in a heavily-publicized use-of-force case, testified against a legislative change barring prohibited restraints. He said there should be an exception for deadly force situations.
“Please stop trying to write our laws while looking at Minneapolis,” he said. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25 has ignited calls for reform nationwide.
Officer Meaghan O’Leary said a proposed reform bill was rash and in response to national events during an election year.
“Public safety should not be put at risk to save money or to politically grandstand,” she said.
Two additional public forums are scheduled for Aug. 12 and Aug. 16.
The hearing follows reform efforts from many members of the public, and most recently, a group of 14 community organizations calling for reform.
Those groups, including the Vermont ACLU, Justice for All, Migrant Justice, and the Vermont Branches of the NAACP are calling for the state to invest in communities, not police, along with more specific reforms.
The group wants to end qualified immunity, remove officers from schools, limit police involvement in low-level offenses, ban police use of military-grade equipment and techniques, and prohibit the use of invasive surveillance techniques.
The group is also seeking that the state require the appointment of independent counsel outside of the State’s Attorneys and the Attorney General’s office to review and prosecute police misconduct, establish community control over police departments and increase transparency and data collection and analysis.
Steffen Gillom, the president of the NAACP Windham County Branch, said in a press release that the state “needs to do more than talk about making real change.”
“We need to be creating real change by creating ecosystems that give the most marginalized folks a fair shot at getting justice no matter the color of their skin, the cadence of their speech, or their family or origin,” Gillom said. “It’s the responsibility of our lawmakers to spearhead the creation of that change.”
The other community groups that signed onto the letter are Outright Vermont, Pride Center of Vermont, Rights and Democracy, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Vermont Center for Independent Living, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, Vermont Human Rights Commission, Vermont Legal Aid, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the preferred pronoun of Hana Saydek.