Sheriff will cancel town policing contracts if cops lose immunity

By Guy Page

Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson said Wednesday that if police are stripped of current legal protections against civil rights lawsuits, he will stop providing law enforcement services for 14 towns in his county.

As introduced by Sen. Kesha Ram (D/P – Chittenden) and others, including Windham County Sen. Becca Balint, S254 would take from police officers the ‘qualified immunity,’ now enjoyed by all state and local employees, against punitive lawsuits filed by people unhappy with how they performed their duties. The stated intent of the law is to provide Vermonters with stronger legal remedies against police who violate their civil rights. The version passed by the Senate maintains the current level of qualified immunity protection for police, but also commissions a study on how it might be revoked. It also requires police departments to keep public records of judgements and settlements of claims paid out for lawsuits. 

In House Judiciary Committee hearings this week, S254 also came under fire from Steve Howard, Executive Director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association. The VSEA represents about 110 state law enforcement officers, including Vermont State Police officers not represented by the troopers’ union. 

“State employees feel they should feel as though they should have the backing and support necessary to do the work that the laws passed in this building require them to do,” Howard said. “These employees deserve to know that so long as they are following the guidance of the training they receive from the state on the manner in which they’re supposed to perform their jobs, they will be protected.” 

The federal courts already protect the civil rights of Vermonters alleging violations by police. Of 10 civil rights lawsuits brought against cops in federal courts in Vermont, qualified immunity has been waived eight times, Howard said. 

House Judiciary has not voted yet on S254. Kicking around State House committee rooms is a book by Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen called “Above The Law: How ‘Qualified Immunity Protects Violent Police.” The cover shows a cop aiming his sidearm. The back cover describes qualified immunity as “a nearly failsafe tool to let police brutality go unpunished and deny victims their constitutional rights.”

For Windham County Sheriff Anderson – who is also president of the VT Sheriffs’ Association and a Brattleboro native and career Windham County cop who graduated from high school on a Friday and was enrolled in the Vermont Police Academy the next Monday – revoking qualified would leave him no choice but to terminate law enforcement contracts with the 14 small Windham County towns his department now serves. 

“If S254 passes as introduced, I will be eliminating the contracts the Windham County Sheriff’s Dept. holds for law enforcement,” Anderson told Vermont Daily Chronicle during a visit to the State House Wednesday. Vermont sheriffs are legally obligated to provide services such as transportation and serving legal papers. They are not required by statute to offer municipal law enforcement. If Windham County deputy sheriffs are no longer on the job, the entire burden will fall to the Vermont State Police, who are already understaffed. 

The VSP takes a lead role on patrolling I-91 corridor north from the Massachusetts state line – a favorite corridor of fentanyl and heroin smugglers. Adding the responsibility of covering the backroads of Townshend and many other rural communities would reduce VSP coverage of the freeway, thus making Vermont even less risky for drug smuggling hubs in Springfield, MA and Hartford, CT.  

To illustrate what losing qualified immunity would mean to police, Anderson talks about an incident that happened to him years ago when he was a rookie Windham County Sheriff’s Deputy. 

“I stopped a person who was in possession of marijuana, when it was illegal. I detected the odor of it.” The suspect “provided me with a rolled up paper towel. I opened said paper towel.” 

“Under this bill, this would be a violation of his rights against search and seizure,” Anderson said. “At the time I didn’t know it was a container. Under this bill he would have a right to sue me, because I had opened a container – a paper towel.”

As introduced, S254 would allow damages of up to $25,000. Most young police officers don’t have that much money in the bank. “We’re talking about taking away their house,” he said. 

Indemnifying officers for this amount adds significantly to department costs, and could tempt departments to declare ‘bad faith’ by the officer, thus leaving him/her without departmental protection. 

The Legislature and other state employees would maintain immunity from civil rights lawsuits.

Also, the drastic step of removing qualified immunity is unnecessary because the law enforcement community has been busily incorporating many recent legal statutes aimed at reducing police misconduct and protecting the civil rights of all Vermonters. 

“We have a lot of new or young initiatives that the GA has created in the last five years, that are just growing into their full potential,” Anderson said. “We need to trust that these initiatives are well thought out.”

As Howard noted, courts already are willing to waive the ‘qualified immunity’ argument if justified. Furthermore, cops have been decertified for misbehavior. 

Anderson said that even though losing qualified immunity looms in the near future of Vermont law enforcement, recruits are still signing up to become Vermont police officers. He explained their willingness in one word: “courage.”

11 replies »

  1. I know from personal experience the level of tolerance that a police officer must possess, but everybody has their limits, and that this Sheriff has evidently reached his limit in regards to the level of support he is lacking from the Legislature, is understandable to me. I hope his reaction to their actions makes the woke dopes under the Golden Dumb think twice about their agenda.

  2. Other public-sector employees paid for by Vermont taxpayer money enjoy generous benefits when it comes to pensions, paid leave, and having either government or your union go to bat for you in any kind of dispute. To threaten removing qualified immunity only to law enforcement is a slap in the face to these dedicated public servants who swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. Most of us regular folk dont have to swear an oath to take a job and receive a paycheck. People collecting all forms of non-entitlement public assistance dont have to swear an oath to receive their free booty. This threatened retribution is based on events that didn’t even take place around here and is part of an over-the-top race hysteria promoted by irrational leftists. Has the marked increase in crime not making people realize that treating police as villains has real consequences toward public safety?

    • Re: “Most of us regular folk dont have to swear an oath to take a job and receive a paycheck.”

      While most of we ‘regular folks’ don’t ‘swear an oath’ (in this technical sense) when we take a job, do we not at least agree to abide by the rule of law? The job applications I submit to my employees, for example, asks them to declare various personal guarantees with regard to their standing under various rules of law.

      I’m a law-and-order guy from the get go. But, IMHO, ‘qualified immunity’ is yet another of those legal perspectives awash in a vagueness destined to be abused by anyone working for a ‘public entity’, with authority over another person.

      As an employer, I don’t have ‘qualified immunity’. And I suspect most readers here haven’t read the various court rulings on the subject. They should.

      Did the Windham County Sherriff actually threaten the public by exercising the authority the public conferred on the Sherriff in the first place?

      Clearly, the Windham County Sherrif should resign if he disagrees with whatever the rule of law requires. But to threaten the public by refusing to enforce the very law the Sherrif took an oath to protect and defend, indicates to me that this Sheriff may very well be the kind of person who will abuse ‘qualified immunity’.

      I’d like to hear the Sherriff’s perspective in this regard.

      • You do not walk toward danger every day in your job. You are not required to force unwilling participants to follow laws that you had no say in making or imposing. You do not walk toward danger every moment, every day, to try and keep the peace for members of the community that you do not even know. Yet you appear to believe that you have integrity greater than most police officers. Police officers who leave their families to protect the greater good. You assume that you have superiority in morality, discernment and character. So much superiority, in fact, that laws should be made to remove any support or protection from the very people protecting you. I strongly support that people like you, of such superior righteousness should be able to protect yourselves. All of the Courageous men and women putting their life on the line should go home, protect the families they love, and let the wolves emerge. Small towns in Vermont can become San Francisco and Baltimore and the self righteous and the wolves can fight it out amongst themselves. The courageous, the compassionate, the humble, we will band together and focus on the same things we always have. Believing in each other, serving each other, supporting each other, face to face. In joy and community.

      • Jody Kay: You exaggerate with typical strawman fallacies.

        First, as an employer, yes, sometimes I am forced to make ‘unwilling participants … follow laws that [I] had no say in making or imposing’. And those very same laws often prohibit me from taking the necessary actions police officers are authorized to make. So, I’m often at a disadvantage. None the less, I must be diligent in that regard every day. And if I fail to protect my employees, I’m held personally responsible.

        Second, nowhere did I say anything about having integrity greater than anyone else, police officer or otherwise. You’re making stuff up.

        And it wasn’t me who said: ‘All of the Courageous men and women putting their life on the line should go home…”. It was Sheriff Anderson who said: “I will be eliminating the contracts the Windham County Sheriff’s Dept. holds for law enforcement,”. So much for ‘Believing in each other, serving each other, supporting each other, face to face. In joy and community.’

        You completely ignored my logic in your diatribe, that rescinding ‘qualified immunity’ opens the door to ‘unequal’ protection under the law. And when the Windham County Sheriff uses his authority, threatening to withhold services that he is contracted to provide, he is breaching his contract with those towns.

        I suggest you read up on ‘qualified immunity’.

        It’s not the red herring you and the sheriff make it out to be. But to use one’s public position, as an elected official, to threaten ‘the community’ with a breach of contract, should give everyone pause.

      • Correction: The sentence “that rescinding ‘qualified immunity’ opens the door to ‘unequal’ protection under the law. And when the Windham County Sheriff uses his authority, threatening to withhold services that he is contracted to provide, he is breaching his contract with those towns.”

        should have be written:

        that: ‘qualified immunity’ opens the door to ‘unequal’ protection under the law. And when the Windham County Sheriff uses his authority, threatening to withhold services that he is contracted to provide, he is breaching his contract with those towns.

  3. Who is running this crazy state?? The progressive socialists have destroyed burlington completely and now are doing the same for the entire state. And we the voters are allowing it by voting for these activists.

  4. This started many years ago when insurance companies elected to settle law suits against Police and the agencies they were employed by settling out of court because it was cheaper. They created a monster. Lawyer’s go where the money is. Removing immunity is one less hurdle to jump and one more wallet to rob. Open up a newspaper or turn on the TV news to witness what’s going on in Vermont. Latin Kings now setting up shop in southern Vermont. OD deaths soaring. Gun fights becoming more and more a common experience in Vermont.
    Policing is unforgiving with everyone Monday morning quarterbacking the actions of Police. Recruiting is down. Though police administrators will deny it, standards have been lowered. People are pushed through the academy that probably shouldn’t be.
    Wake up! See through the BS and don’t let this happen.

  5. Just add Ben&Jerry’s to a long list of woke, dead companies.

    To them we’re all just White supremacists.

  6. My understanding is the Sheriff has constitutional duty and rights to remove elected officials for treason, corruption, and all illegal activity. They have more power than any other law enforcement. I would think the Sheriff’s wouldn’t have to worry about any legislation if they investigated our elected officials and charged them with the appropriate crimes. I believe there are a number of citizens who would gladly join the efforts and provide mountains of evidence!

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