‘Qualified immunity’ ban stumbles at Statehouse

Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 6:09 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont Senate Friday approved a police reform bill that removes some of the legal protections offered to public authorities, but falls far short of the “qualified immunity” ban many advocates had hoped for.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields government employees from civil lawsuits. A proposal this session would have rolled that back for Vermont police officers. Advocates say it’s the cornerstone to reform efforts aimed at holding police accountable and assuring those who are wronged by police can seek justice.

But police and municipal leaders have pushed back, saying public officials should not work in fear of being sued for split-second decisions in the line of duty. They say getting rid of the protections qualified immunity provides will make it even harder to recruit new police officers, making the current staffing challenges even worse.

“I can’t remember a bill that we took more testimony on that was so divergent and had little agreement on,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County. The Senate version now includes a compromise that keeps individual officers from facing financial penalties. But Sears says it’s a compromise original sponsors of the bill could not support. “It became apparent that my attempt to find middle ground was not going to be successful.”

The bill approved Friday solidifies a Vermont Supreme Court decision into law dictating people can sue state agencies while still leaving immunity for individual officers in place. It also tasks a committee to further study how qualified immunity is used in Vermont and whether it’s a problem.

Rolling back the doctrine was a top priority for Democrats, but some say they were concerned it would stigmatize law enforcement. “I believe that even this version has the optics of not trusting law enforcement, sending that message and the negative impact it has on law enforcement and agencies,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham County.

Others say the new measure does not go far enough to protect people of color. “Our disparities are drastic. When you look at a state that has half a percent of Black men in the state population but eight to 12 percent of men in prison. That is a disparity unlike many others in the country,” said Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden County.

“It was solid and it made sense. It was then watered down. It was piecemealed to something that was performative for political agendas but actually does not do anything for the people they claim to serve here in Vermont,” said Steffen Gillom with the Windham County NAACP.

Senate President Becca Balint, D-Windham County, said in a statement that Friday’s vote was a good step forward but that there is more work to do.

The bill now heads to the House.

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