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Vt. lawmakers plan to continue police reform efforts in January

Published: Dec. 15, 2021 at 5:12 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Police accountability will be back in the spotlight in Montpelier next year as Vermont lawmakers seek to balance public safety and civil liberties. Senate lawmakers are teeing up a bill that they say would hold bad cops accountable.

The murder of George Floyd last year sparked discussions of police reform and accountability across the nation, and those reformers see removing “qualified immunity” as a cornerstone to achieving meaningful reform. It’s the legal principle that shields government workers, including police, from alleged civil rights violations and lawsuits.

In a civil lawsuit against an officer, the plaintiff has to show a court that police violated “clearly established law.” They have to point to a prior case where someone else’s rights were violated in a similar way before the case even makes it to a court.

“Minor factual distinctions between cases are routine enough to say the law was not clearly established,” said Jay Schweikert with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

A proposal from Vermont lawmakers would roll back qualified immunity and would allow individual police officers to be held accountable for alleged civil rights violations.

“This legislation assures that victims of clear police misconduct aren’t thrown out of the courts before their cases can be heard,” Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, one of the authors of the proposed bill.

Supporters say ending the practice would also curb racial disparities. Data shows Black, Indigenous, and Vermonters of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. “Qualified is another facet of systemic racism in our legal system and is incompatible with a commitment to civil rights,” said Indi Schoenherr with the ACLU of Vermont.

But what if an officer makes a mistake in a split-second decision? “The mere fact that an officer makes the wrong call is not unconstitutional. Rather, officers only commit constitutional violations when they act unreasonably under the facts known at the time of the incident,” Schweikert said.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling is among law enforcement officials who say they are gravely concerned with the proposal. He says police can already be held accountable if they act outside of the law. He also worries that rolling back qualified immunity could create a feeding frenzy of lawsuits and make recruitment and retention even harder than it already is. “We’re asking them to do incredibly difficult work. We’re asking them to work nights, weekends, and holidays, and they continue to have diminishing support from some elected officials,” Schirling said.

So far, only Colorado has rolled back qualified immunity. The Vermont proposal is just a draft and has not been introduced, but lawmakers acknowledge that it’s the beginning of a long-overdue conversation.

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