Expanding Vt. Criminal Justice Council aims to incorporate police reform efforts

Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 6:38 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A new Vermont law expanded and changed the name of the group that makes key decisions on police policy in the state. It comes as some communities grapple with questions about law enforcement training and the role of the police.

Burlington is just one city currently discussing difficult questions about police staffing levels and funding, and state leaders say similar conversations could also be coming on the statewide level. Vermont Lawmakers this past session doubled the size of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council. The group, formerly known as the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, oversees the Vermont Police Academy and also develops testing standards and statewide policies for how cops should do their jobs. The council has traditionally been made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, corrections, and others in the criminal justice system. Now, it has expanded it to include racial justice advocates and mental health experts.

“It’s representing what Vermont is, it’s representing what Vermont wants,” said Heather Simons, the council’s new executive director. The former corrections training expert says most Vermonters want the same thing -- transparency and fair and equitable community policing. “We’re asking much more of law enforcement than we ever have. We’re delivering mandates and instructions, but it’s important that we keep up the supporting from how we get from A to B.”

Simons says that support includes bringing in new voices to the table such as the NAACP and mental health experts. The idea of having human services officials working hand-in-hand with the police isn’t new, but Mia Schultz with the Rutland Area NAACP says the council’s new makeup gives Vermont the ability to reflect on transforming policing.

“That is formed by policy to redirect what their aim is really. At this time, in my opinion, police should be in charge of violent crimes,” Schultz said.

Those in law enforcement agree that’s the end goal, but they say getting there will take time and will involve breaking down traditional police training models. In the meantime, they are facing serious challenges when it comes to finding and keeping officers. “The lack of support for important and challenging work has an impact on not only recruitment but also retention,” said Vt. Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.

In 2016, The Vermont State Police had 310 sworn members. Last year that number was 311. Today, that has dropped to 295.

In a sign of the changing times for the council, the group this spring issued a statement on the day Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd:

“The Council bears critical responsibilities surrounding law enforcement training, culture, policy, and accountability. It is important that police reconcile and repair relationships as members of their communities. In particular, leaders must continue to respect the humanity of those who have been harmed as well as those who commit to doing the work.”

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