Vermont lawmakers take action on police reforms

Published: Jun. 23, 2020 at 5:33 PM EDT
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The Vermont Legislature took action Tuesday on police reform-- a quick reaction to widespread demonstrations over racial inequity in law enforcement.

The Vermont Senate unanimously approved the package of bills that many say are a step toward curbing systemic racism. The bills ban chokeholds, require body cameras for state police and create a statewide use of force policy.

Demonstrations against systemic racism in Vermont and across the country spurred action under the virtual golden dome.

"The intention is to make sure that no one in Vermont ever experiences that threat of death and has to choke out the words 'I can't breathe,'" said Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden County.

The Vermont Senate passed a package of bills aimed at stemming systemic racism and holding police more accountable.

Under the legislation, law enforcement won't be eligible for state grants unless they collect and report race data during traffic stops. It also bans chokeholds and sets a statewide standard for when police officers can use force.

"Necessary, proportional and prohibitive when it comes to chokeholds or anything that might inhibit blood or oxygen to the brain," Baruth said.

The legislation also requires state police to wear body cameras, which will cost about $700,000. If the Department of Public Safety can't pay for it out of this year's budget, Baruth says it will come out of next year's budget.

The Vermont Police Association, which represents the rank and file officers around the state, says they helped craft the bills and many of the changes are already in place in some departments.

The bill does not require municipal officers to wear body cameras, a cost local departments are concerned about taking on.

"Body cameras are still something people are trying to work out. We're talking about a significant cost and a significant storage cost to agencies," said Kevin Blongy of the Vermont Police Association.

Blongy says these reforms are still a work in progress and that there are more parts that may need to be added or adjusted.

House lawmakers began taking testimony on the bills Tuesday.

Baruth says he expects the bills to pass through the House quickly because lawmakers have been working on these initiatives and there's a lot of pressure to pass them before the break.

Lawmakers still have to pass a budget before they take a break. They are going to pass a temporary budget for the first quarter of the fiscal year 2021 that starts on July 1. They're going to pass several smaller budgets because we still don't know the full picture of the financial impact of COVID-19 or if more help will come from the federal government.

This week, the Legislature is also putting the finishing touches on hundreds of millions of dollars in CARES Act funds for small businesses and higher education.

Later this summer, the Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott will create another budget with details of what will have to be cut because of COVID-19.