Vermont Legislature to consider ending qualified immunity for police officers

Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, discusses a bill before the committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Feb. 13, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont lawmakers and police reform advocates are proposing an end to qualified immunity for police officers, a widespread legal doctrine that protects public servants from facing litigation for violating citizens’ civil rights while on the job.

Advocates say that qualified immunity makes it virtually impossible to bring a lawsuit against a police officer who uses excessive force against a citizen. As long as the doctrine remains in place, they contend, police can act with impunity and citizens — particularly people of color — may distrust officers.

Now, as the Vermont Legislature gears up for its 2022 session, lawmakers will consider putting an end to the doctrine (as it applies to police) statewide. Proponents of the bill say it’s a step toward police accountability as the country continues to reckon with the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police.

State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, is leading the bill with three cosponsors: Sens. Becca Balint, D-Windham; Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden; and Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden. Sears said the proposition is an extension of police accountability measures already passed by the Legislature in recent years, but in his work on the issue, “one of those gaps we found in Vermont was in access to justice.”

“The courts created this gap by making it very difficult for victims of police misconduct to get their day in court, even when that misconduct causes serious harm,” he said at a Wednesday news conference hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which is backing the bill.

Sears said Wednesday that the bill is modeled after similar legislation passed in Colorado. According to the Washington Post, dozens of states have attempted to pass similar bills, but most were defeated or watered down by aggressive lobbying from police officers and unions. They say that ending qualified immunity would amount to potential financial ruin for police officers who are brought to court, and that it would drive worried officers out of the profession in droves.

Diane Goldstein, who is the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Project and worked in law enforcement for 21 years, countered that sentiment, saying at Wednesday’s news conference that “ending qualified immunity will not bring open season upon law enforcement.”

“It will simply allow judges to hear the facts of the most egregious cases, which are currently causing the public perception that police are, in fact, above the law,” she said.

With qualified immunity still intact in most states, she said, the doctrine “only undermines” police departments who “are working in earnest to repair damaged relationships within the communities that we protect and serve.”

In Vermont and across the country, people of color are disproportionately targeted in police stops and experience more excessive force at the hands of police. Mia Schultz, the president of the Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP, said that ending qualified immunity for police in Vermont would send the message to all Vermonters “that accountability exists, that there will be, from here on out, consequences for actions.”

“For generations, parents with Black and brown children have given their children specific instructions on what to do when they encounter police. This is called ‘the talk.’ And I, too, have had this with my children,” she said. “This talk is commonplace in Black and brown communities because we know the institution of policing, and its lack of accountability with laws such as qualified immunity, do not protect our very lives.”

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, on the other hand, opposes ending qualified immunity for police. Karen Horn, the League’s director of public policy and advocacy, told VTDigger in a Wednesday afternoon interview that the League recognizes that there are issues with excessive force and racial bias in policing, but that the League supports “less draconian ways” to solve the issue.

She cited past legislation to invest in additional training for officers, inclusive hiring practices and expanding the state Criminal Justice Council. She said she recognizes that public trust in the police is an issue, and said body cameras help increase transparency and accountability.

It’s not just police who are protected by qualified immunity; the doctrine also applies to public officials, school board members, firefighters and others. Horn said the League is concerned that an end to qualified immunity for police could result in rollbacks for others down the line — a classic slippery slope.

“That’s a really important foundation of service in local government and state government in Vermont,” she said. “So we think it’s important, very important to keep that standard in place and essentially, take a different approach to addressing the issue (of police reform).”

In the past, the Vermont Troopers Association has opposed calls to end qualified immunity for police, but a phone message left for a representative with the group was not returned on Wednesday.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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