Welch says congressional police reform efforts long overdue

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) The call for police reform in the wake of the death of George Floyd is driving discussion and debate nationwide on policing and racial injustice, including in Vermont.

Two weeks ago community members painted a massive Black Lives Matter mural in Montpelier, and the Vermont Senate this week acted on a package of bills.

"There's so many examples, so many bodies that have been dropped in the street by government actors, so many bodies that have been dropped in the street by nameless and faceless people who have gone unpunished and unnoticed," said Vermont Racial Equity Executive Director Xusana Davis.

Widespread demonstrations calling for racial justice and police reform sparked action in the nation's capitol. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote Thursday on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch says the bill is the beginning of a long overdue reckoning. It would ends police chokeholds, no knock raids in drug cases, and requires body cameras for police. It also creates a database of police officers who are disciplined.

"That will be noted and will end this merry-go-round of police who have significant infractions going from one department to another," Welch said.

He says the bill also ends the practice of qualified immunity, or allowing people who've had their constitutional rights violated take individual police officers to court. This has sparked pushback from some in law enforcement and has highlighted the partisan divide between the House and Senate.

"The legislative process would give us an opportunity to have a negotiation, not just a stonewall," Welch said.

The bill is expected to breeze through the House but it could face a roadblock in the Senate because of the qualified immunity provision. Additionally, senate Democrats earlier this week blocked a police reform bill created by Republicans.

Welch says the partisan divide is a big problem but says that he'll try to advocate and win the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But pass or fail, activists say that police reform is just one piece of the puzzle. "Bad policing is just one symptom of a disease called systemic racism," said Skyler Nash with the Vermont Racial Equity Alliance

And Rep. Welch says that the bill is critical to righting the wrongs of the past. "It's the beginning of acknowledging there has to be accountability. And I see this as the beginning of the long overdue discussion that is the legacy of slavery," he said.