Statewide police use of force law passes without Gov. Phil Scott’s signature

A statewide use of force bill for Vermont law enforcement will pass into law without Gov. Phil Scott’s signature, he announced this week. 

The bill, S.119, was crafted and gained steam during the last few months in response to incidents around the country where Black citizens were killed by police officers.

People gather in Burlington in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and against police brutality on Aug. 25, 2020.

The Vermont branch of the American Civil Liberties Union called the new law “the nation’s best statewide policy on police use of force.” The group had offered testimony to lawmakers on committees addressing the bill.

“Police brutality and impunity is a growing concern in Vermont and nationwide, and it is all too clear that we can no longer allow the police to police themselves,” the ACLU-Vermont wrote in a statement. “S.119 is a historic milestone that will prioritize de-escalation whenever possible and help hold law enforcement accountable when they use excessive force.” 

What does the new law do? 

The law defines statewide standards for when police officers feel they need to use physical force on citizens to preserve public safety. It allows law enforcement to use physical force only when it is “objectively reasonable, necessary and proportional” to make an arrest, prevent an escape, or overcome the resistance of a person the officer has cause to believe has committed a crime.

“The authority of law enforcement to use physical force is a serious responsibility that shall be exercised judiciously and with respect for human rights and dignity and for the sanctity of every human life,” the law states. “Every person has a right to be free from excessive use of force by officers acting under authority of the State.”

More:Free Press investigation: How did Burlington police rack up their respective use of force incidents?

The law also: 

  • Bans the use of neck restraints, or any pressure on the person’s neck, windpipe, or carotid artery that would prevent breathing. 
  • Prohibits the use of deadly force on a person based on the danger the person poses to himself or herself. The person must pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to the officer or other members of the public to warrant the use of lethal force. 
  • Requires, when feasible, that a police officer identifies himself or herself to members of the public and warns that deadly force may be used.
  • Requires officers to intervene if they see a fellow officer using a prohibited restraint on a person.
  • Requires the Department of Public Safety and the Executive Director of Racial Equity to report to lawmakers by February 2021 about developing a uniform statewide model policy on the use of force for all law enforcement agencies and officers.
Gov. Phil Scott speaks to reporters at the Statehouse in Montpelier on April 25, 2019.

Why did it pass without Scott’s signature? 

In a letter to the Vermont Senate, Scott said he agreed with the goals of the bill and recognized its importance, but he worried that it was “hastily crafted” during the unique legislative session that has taken place mostly virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scott said he felt there was insufficient opportunity for the full Legislature to hear feedback from both historically disadvantaged communities and public safety officials, and that some gaps and undefined terms remained in the bill.

“For Vermont to be a leader in setting a modernized and enhanced standard for law enforcement use of force, we must work together to do so in a way that is clear and can be implemented fully and effectively in the field,” Scott said.

Scott said he hoped to continue working on the law in January. He said that Michael Schirling, the state’s public safety commissioner, had presented to Scott a plan for modernizing law enforcement, which will likely be part of the discussion.

“I believe with more time – and more testimony from all impacted communities – this bill can be improved before it goes into effect,” Scott said.

More:Records show how often Burlington Police officers used physical force in 2019

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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