Who’s policing the police? A look at law enforcement oversight in Vermont

Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 5:44 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Five Vermont state troopers faced disciplinary action in the first six months of last year. That information was released this week in a regular report by the State Police Advisory Commission, a body that provides oversight of state police conduct.

It comes as residents of Burlington get ready to decide whether to impose a different model of oversight.

The State Police Advisory Commission releases reports every six months detailing the outcomes of investigations into police misconduct. We wanted to know how the process works and how it compares to the oversight proposal headed to the ballot in Burlington.

“I would like the public to feel confident that in fact, we are looking after the public interest here,” said Nancy Sheahan, the chair of the Vermont State Police Advisory Commission.

The advisory commission is made up of seven members of the public who have no direct connection to the Vermont State Police. One member must be a former state police trooper, one must be an attorney.

In their most recent report, the committee reviewed eight complaints of alleged misconduct that had been filed by members of the public or came from within the VSP ranks.

“There aren’t a lot of complaints, they’re taken seriously, here’s what we can tell you about those. We want the public to feel like, alright, we’re doing our job,” Sheahan said.

In the state police model of oversight, complaints are investigated by VSP, either by a station commander or they go to internal affairs. The results of investigations go to the advisory commission which makes recommendations on potential discipline. The final decision is made by the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety.

“[The State Police Advisory Commission] does not have the authority to impose discipline or overturn a decision made by the commissioner; we are advisory,” Sheahan said.

The proposal on the ballot in Burlington would have an independent board field complaints, conduct investigations and determine punishment. That board would be comprised of 7-9 Burlington residents picked by city leaders, but nobody with past law enforcement experience would be allowed to serve.

James Lyall, the executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, says the move is necessary in achieving proper police oversight.

“We believe that it’s really important to have independent involvement in police oversight, that it’s not enough to essentially leave it to police to police themselves... We’ve seen that; that can create real problems,” Lyall said.

The proposed board in Burlington would allow them the power to discipline and dismiss officers and the police chief, something opponents say would be unreasonable.

Having served on the State Police Advisory Commission for several years, Sheahan believes that model provides adequate oversight.

“Policing is very complicated and if you don’t understand why officers are trained in the way that they’re trained, why policies exist, we may be doing a disservice to those officers,” she said.

The State Police Advisory Commission’s report does not give specifics as to who the officers are.

Voters in Burlington will have a chance to decide on an oversight board during Town Meeting Day in March.

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