Calls for police reform renew interest in stalled Vt. deadly force bill

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) As thousands around the country protest the death of George Floyd and perceived racial bias at the hands of law enforcement, the Vermont Legislature has picked up work on a police reform bill it started months ago.

"The need for this bill has become more apparent due to the police violence we're seeing around the country," said Falko Schilling with the ACLU of Vermont.

Before COVID-19 drove the legislative session off the rails, lawmakers were working on a bill which would create a statutory policy for the use of deadly force.

Right now, whether a shooting is justified depends on whether a police officer fears for his or her life in the moment force is used. The proposed reform would limit deadly force only to when it's absolutely necessary to protect human life, and officers actions leading up to the shooting would be considered.

"It doesn't look at a minute before, let alone 10 minutes before," said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield.

She says many police shootings in Vermont in recent years have involved people dealing with mental health crises and that the new policy will increase transparency and trust in law enforcement while limiting the number of use-of-force incidents across the board.

"Do we need to change this in the future so it doesn't happen again? It's not necessarily saying you did something bad or you did something deliberately bad, but what do we need to do differently to avoid this?" she said.

The Vermont State Police have been involved in 44 officer-involved shootings since 1977, with 22 of them being fatal. In 41 of the cases, the use of force was found to be justified.

The ACLU is concerned about excessive force and systemic racial bias.

"Over the last decade we've seen as many shootings as in the three decades prior to that.," Schilling said. "We believe this bill would create a statutory standard across the state which would make sure police would only use force when necessary."

But top law enforcement officials say the state has made strides in curbing the use of force through de-escalation training and other non-lethal tactics. They also contend that out of all the calls they respond to each year, only a fraction of them result in confrontation, and an even smaller number in shootings.

"It really starts at the hiring process. We've got to hire the right people into law enforcement, you've gotta train them appropriately, you have to have the right promotional process so that the people supervising law enforcement are doing it with the right decision making in mind," said Vt. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.

With only weeks left in the session and lawmakers focused on COVID-19 response efforts, a path forward for the police reform bill remains unclear. Donahue hopes support for the bill will gain momentum next session.

"I do hope that maybe we have a chance at getting a first step in motion so we don't lose another year in making progress in taking a hard look at where our standards need to be," she said.