Advocates push Vt. lawmakers for police reform, accountability

Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 6:05 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers head back to the Statehouse next week. On the front burner will be police reform and accountability.

Perhaps nowhere in Vermont more than Burlington has there been a discussion of what role the police should play in a community and how to hold them accountable.

A decades-long discussion over police reform was placed on overdrive after the murder of George Floyd. It inspired protests in Burlington two summers ago, in which protestors occupied a park for a month.

“The momentum that we had, the allies that we had, we’re not keeping it,” said Zoraya Hightower, P-Burlington City Council.

Ben & Jerry’s hosted an effort to rebuild that momentum at a rally in Burlington on Wednesday, bringing together lawmakers, business owners and activists.

It was just up the street from a 2018 incident where then-officer Jason Bellavance used force against Jeremie Meli. Bellavance was disciplined and has left the department. The city of Burlington wanted to dismiss a civil lawsuit against Bellavance, saying he was protected from facing the lawsuit under the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. However, a judge recently ruled that part of the lawsuit against Bellivance could proceed.

In this legislative session, the Legislature has been looking to eliminate that protection for police.

“All it’s about is letting a person who feels they were abused to have their day in court and letting a jury decide,” said Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s.

Police have opposed the issue and said it would exacerbate staffing issues. But activists say it’s only aimed at bad cops.

“It is crucial that we continue to press forward on making real actualized reform for law enforcement,” said Kiah Morris, the executive director of Rights & Democracy.

Before the Town Meeting Day break, Vermont lawmakers pared down the proposal. Under the new bill, police could still be sued but their employer-- the city or town-- would pay any damages awarded instead of the individual officer.

“Focusing on qualified immunity is not going to build that trust with community,” said South Burlington City Manager Jessie Baker, who also serves as the president of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Baker says if communities are forced to defend lawsuits against cops, it will distract from other meaningful police reforms.

“We are taking money away potentially from those mental health services and those substance use treatment services,” she said.

Lawmakers agree those reforms are important but say qualified immunity is one of a package of reforms needed to build trust, including more training, alternative responses to mental health calls and reexamining drug policy.

“We need policies to create equity in our justice system across the board,” said Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington.

About the new proposal lawmakers will take up next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from many Vermonters. But Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says she does not support the new proposal to shift the financial responsibility away from individual officers.

This story has been updated to reflect that the part of the civil lawsuit against Jason Bellavance can proceed.

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