By Guy Page
Undecided about removing “qualified immunity” legal protection from police, the Senate Judiciary Committee will take a two-week break from S254.
The bill would expose police to lawsuits from perpetrators, interest groups, and other members of the public. Supporters say the public – especially ‘marginalized’ groups – needs the power of the lawsuit to protect them from police brutality. Opponents say it’s not needed and will drive police out of Vermont for more cop-friendly jurisdictions. Colorado, the only U.S. state to remove police qualified immunity, has suffered ‘cop flight’ as a result, a recent survey shows.
Near the end of another lengthy day of testimony and discussion, Chair Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) yesterday asked the other committee members: “Is there a problem? And if there is one, does S254 help to solve that problem?”
Sen. Jeannette White (D-Windham): “I think there is a problem. I don’t know how we solve it.”
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who is a defense lawyer: “I don’t tend to agree there’s a problem. We’ve heard about problems in the federal courts. But this is not something that’s going to resolve that particular problem. I’ve been really uncomfortable with the timing of this bill, in the midst of everything else that is going on around us… when we can’t find people to get into law enforcement.”
“I am probably the only one on the screen right now who has actually experienced looking at the barrel of a shotgun held by a police officer. That’s what drove me to law school, and it drove me eventually to politics, and signing on to the expungement bill. I’m always sympathetic with the idea that people should be entitled to redress their problems with the police.
“Oddly enough when I hear witnesses talking about this being a black versus white discussion and systemic racism, I will only say that [Public Safety Commissioner] Mike Schirling, when he was chief of police, was asked to begin taking data collection on stops by his officers by my human rights commission. So I am sympathetic with causes. But I do not see this as a systemic racism issue.”
Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden): “I wouldn’t have co-sponsored this bill if I didn’t believe that there was a problem, and i wouldn’t have co-sponsored the bill if I didn’t believe it was a good starting point for a discussion about what kind of bill might fill that need.”
Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor): “We’ve been moving in the right direction with all of the things we’ve been doing with police situations, training etc.. Those things take time to have an impact. I think this goes too far at this point.”
Sears said he plans to revisit and perhaps revise the bill in two weeks.