Politics

Scott plan to merge public safety agencies gets mixed reviews in Legislature

Michael Schirling
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, shown in a pre-pandemic photo, is presenting Gov. Scott’s proposal to merge state-level law enforcement functions in a new Agency of Public Safety. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

After lawmakers rejected an executive order from Gov. Phil Scott to establish a single agency to house all of Vermont’s state-level public safety and law enforcement functions, they have begun discussing legislation that would accomplish the same goal. 

But the proposal made by the governor remains uncertain, as it’s drawing a mixed response from lawmakers. 

Michael Schirling, Vermont’s public safety commissioner, presented a proposal to merge multiple agencies under a single umbrella to members of the House and Senate government operations committees Wednesday. Afterward, some said they still weren’t clear on the reasons for the change.

“For me, that’s what’s missing. How are we better off for this effort?” said Rep. Hal Colston, D-Winooski, a member of the House Government Operations Committee. “And if that can be made clear, I think it’ll be easier to move forward.”

Others indicated they support establishing a new Agency of Public Safety.

The idea has been “percolating” for a long time, said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, and she supports the idea.

She noted that the last three Vermont governors have supported having a single agency for state-level law enforcement functions, and she sees “potential for efficiency and possibly savings.”

“There are business functions that should be handled in one place, not scattered about, so I just think that it makes some sense to do it,” White said.

Currently, the Vermont State Police and emergency management fire divisions all fall under the Department of Public Safety, but other law enforcement agencies are spread across state government.

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The governor’s proposal would add enforcement officials in the Department of Motor Vehicles to the new agency, and study whether the Fish & Wildlife Warden Service, the Department of Liquor & Lottery Enforcement, and other state law enforcement groups should be added, too.

It would also bring together other public safety organizations, including the state’s E911 Board, the Fire Service Training Council and the Criminal Justice Council — an independent body that operates the state police academy and reviews allegations of police misconduct. 

Some legislators say they’re worried the move could jeopardize the independence of the Criminal Justice Council. Just last year, as part of police reform efforts, legislators changed the makeup of the council. Now, members of the public form the majority of the council members, instead of law enforcement officials, said Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington.

“I see this as a huge step backward,” said Gannon, vice-chair of the House Government Operations Committee. “We worked to make sure that the council was more independent, had more public oversight, and now it’s going to be part of the Agency of Public Safety, and under the guidance of the secretary of public safety, who will have control over their budget. 

“So if he doesn’t like what the council is doing, he can cut your budget, not fill positions,” Gannon said.

‘More scrutiny, more skepticism’

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, chair of the committee, said it’s “always a good idea to look to places where we could find economies of scale” and “opportunities to share resources.” But she said she will look with “more scrutiny and more skepticism” at how the Criminal Justice Council would fit into the proposal. 

She noted that the council recently asked the Legislature for more funding for staff positions to handle allegations of officer misconduct. These positions weren’t included in the governor’s budget proposal, she noted.

“If the Criminal Justice Council is not able to get the administration to put that in their budget request, then I don’t understand how we could believe that the Criminal Justice Council in an Agency of Public Safety would be treated any more fairly and that the independence of that council would be would be augmented or improved,” Copeland Hanzas said. 

In an interview, Schirling, the public safety commissioner, said the Criminal Justice Council would have more staff members and more money at its disposal as part of the new Agency of Public Safety.

He said the council, which has a 12-person staff and a $2 million budget, would be able to draw on the support of a 605-person staff and the $120 million to $130 million budget shared across the new agency. 

Schirling said the Criminal Justice Council and other independent boards that would be part of the new agency would have “more support for the things that they want to accomplish than they do now.”

“By elevating the operations of the academy to a cabinet-level, where a governor is directly vested in the outcomes there, again, in tandem with an independent council that’s guiding the operations, we think that will, over the long term, provide better outcomes, better investment, better training, better oversight,” Schirling said.

He stressed that the council would keep the independence it’s given under state law, would not answer to the secretary of the new agency, and would retain its ability to pursue its own budget in the Legislature.

Hearing from the people

When Scott signed the executive order in January, he said that bringing state-level law enforcement functions under one roof would lead to “better-coordinated operations, including training and accountability, as well as a consistent culture of fair and impartial policing.”  

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Schirling reiterated that, and said police reform efforts that are underway in Vermont — including efforts to improve fair and impartial policing and enact a use-of-force policy — would “move forward more rapidly if there were more resources and this were attached to a centralized effort.”

“We see this as an opportunity to accelerate the progress that has been made over the last decade in a variety of areas,” Schirling said. 

White said that, if anything, the merger would “expedite” police reforms, noting that the council would retain its independence. 

“The council is the one that establishes the criteria, and the oversight and the training requirements — that isn’t the agency,” White said. 

“The department doesn’t do it now, and the agency wouldn’t do it then,” she said, referring to the existing Department of Public Safety.

After hearing from Schirling on Wednesday, some legislators said they want to hear from the public.

Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex Town, said that with “a change of this magnitude, and where we sit with the questions around public safety and policing,” it may make sense to hold a public hearing on the proposed merger. Other lawmakers agreed, though no date was set, and Schirling said Thursday a public hearing would be a good idea.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, said that in addition to discussing how a new agency would make policing more efficient, state officials “have to make sure that we are building a system that is going to improve our responsiveness to people of color and other vulnerable communities.”  

“I think there are a lot of people around the state, (Black, Indigenous and people of color)  community and others, who … when they think about ‘How can we be better off,’ they want to feel more safe and secure in their communities and know that we’re going to have a police force that is really responsible to the community,” Pollina said. 

Legislators plan to have the Senate consider a bill to accomplish the merger before the House began work on the matter. 

Copeland Hanzas noted that remote legislating during the Covid-19 pandemic makes “complicated tasks” like Scott’s proposal particularly difficult to handle, and she isn’t committed to passing the legislation this session. 

“If the Senate sends us something that doesn’t feel like it’s a slam dunk, or largely supported by Vermonters, then we may wait on it; we may not act on it this year,” she said.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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