In The Wake Of The Chauvin Verdict, Here's Where Things Stand On Police Reform In Vt.
The killing of George Floyd last May prompted activists to double down on calls for elected officials to start rethinking what policing could look like in the U.S. and in Vermont. Last summer, lawmakers took some action, including passing a bill that would set a statewide policy for police use of force and standards for the use of body cameras by police. Where do those efforts stand currently?
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Falko Schilling, advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, about ongoing police reform legislation. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So, as I mentioned, lawmakers passed a bill that sets standards for use of police body cameras and another measure that sets parameters for when and how police can use force last year. How are those measures being implemented right now?
Falko Schilling: Much of this legislative session has been spent looking at those measures and refining them — in particular the use of force standard which, when passed, was one of, if not thestrongest use of force standards in the country.
So, this year, the Legislature has been working with law enforcement officials, activists and others to make sure that that law says exactly what they meant it to say before it goes into effect. So, we will see these laws — at least at this point — go into effect in early fall and see them operationalized by that time.
And so, in terms of what the Legislature is doing to tweak some of that language, I mean, what are some of the changes at play right now?
One of the biggest pieces of discussion around this bill was how do we effectively ban chokeholds in Vermont? And as the law was written last year, it was in a way that law enforcement felt wasn't explicit enough, in terms of what situations chokeholds could or could not be used in and how that would play out in the courts.
And so much of the discussion this year was around when the use of a chokehold would be appropriate. And where the stakeholders came to is that it should be banned from the state of Vermont. It's not something that we should be training people to use, but in a situation where an officer might be in a life-or-death struggle for their life, we're not going to say they can't use something like that when they might otherwise use more deadly force like a gun.
There are other bills in the realm of police reform, ranging from things like school resource officers to data collection from law enforcement. What are some of the measures that you're paying the most attention to right now?
So, Henry, you named the top two for us that we're watching right now in the Legislature. One: making sure that we have better data from across our criminal legal system, starting with someone's first interaction with law enforcement to when they reenter the community — whenever that might be. We know that our data systems are inadequate to pinpoint the places within our system that are creating the racial disparities that we see. So we need more information on that.
And then, we're also very supportive of S. 63, which is a bill that would remove school resource officers from Vermont schools. Because we know that when you have armed police in schools, it creates situations where students of color, students of disabilities, are disproportionately referred into the criminal legal system, and it just makes many students feel less safe.
On the one hand, state and federal governments can set some rules, like the ones we've been speaking about. But policing happens on a local level and there's a fair amount of decision making that can happen between different local departments. We've seen some communities in Vermont try to take on police reform with varying degrees of success. So, I mean, in that context, how much can really be done in Montpelier at the state level, in terms of determining what local police can and can't do?
There's still quite a bit that can be done. So, you point to the bill that would phase out the use of armed police in schools. That's one thing that can be done at the state level. We could mandate that there's community oversight boards within towns of a certain size across the state and say what that structure could look like.
But at the same time, there does need to be quite a bit of work done on the local level. They're going to be the ones who are most directly controlling the budgets and the resources available in those communities.
"One of the problems we have now is we've asked the police to do too many things in situations where that's not the appropriate response." - Falko Schilling, Vermont ACLU
But we would also encourage things like looking at pilots for how we can make sure we have mental health first responders responding to mental health crises.
One of the problems we have now is: we've asked the police to do too many things in situations where that's not the appropriate response. And we need to look at how we reduce that footprint of law enforcement and how do we use those resources more effectively within our communities.
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