By Don Keelan
Bennington County’s state senator, Richard (Dick) Sears, the Vermont Senate’s Judiciary Committee chair, has sold out to the left-wing political lobbying organization, Vermont Public Interest Research Group. No one should even think of applying to become a Vermont law enforcement officer.
Furthermore, at a time when the state’s cities and towns can least afford it, maybe those currently in law enforcement should consider relocating to another state.
As if it was not difficult enough to be in law enforcement, Sen. Dick Sears is proposing legislation removing qualified immunity as a legal defense for Vermont policing personnel.
For the moment, set aside the nature of the legislation and the organizations to which Sears has capitulated. The sworn officer ranks of law enforcement agencies in Vermont are already decimated from outright resignations and early retirement.
Vermont State Police, with an authorized strength of 333 troopers, recently reported that it has over 50 vacant positions. Add to these numbers the wholesale dissolution of the Burlington and Rutland police forces and what the respective municipalities are attempting to do in re-staffing. It is unprecedented. Burlington is even offering a $15,000 signing bonus to police recruits, and the crisis is not limited to Vermont’s two largest cities.
Just ask the Manchester, Brattleboro, Springfield, Vergennes, and Shelburne town leaders, among others, who witnessed the tidal wave of law enforcement officers’ resignations that occurred and continued to occur before the late December announcement by Senator Sears and his allies at the ACLU, NAACP, and VPIRG.
Sen. Sears’ recent statement on qualified immunity was one of the most disingenuous pronouncements I have ever heard from a politician. When Sears made his announcement, he was emphatic that the time has come to remove the U.S. Supreme Court legal doctrine of qualified immunity for police and that every cop should be held personally accountable for their actions. In the same breath, he stated that he has always supported the police and those in law enforcement. Maybe he should sit in on exit interviews.
The crux of the proposed legislation is that a police officer could be held personally and financially accountable to up to $25,000 per incident per person. If passed, every police officer (trooper) will be wise to carry malpractice insurance and have a lawyer on retainer. Good luck to any officer looking to obtain bank credit for a loan or mortgage with such a contingent liability hanging over their head.
The legislation is unnecessary, and recent events have proven it so. Over the past 12 months, the municipalities of Burlington and Bennington have paid out hundreds of thousands to families and individuals who had brought accusations against the police. Vermont localities recognize the poor performance of its police and are willing to accept responsibility and pay restitution.
What is needed is more policing in Vermont. In Sen. Sears’ hometown of Bennington, there is a severe spike of possible gang activity emanating from Massachusetts, illegal drug distribution, deaths from overdoses, and the continuing rise in domestic abuse. Perhaps the conversation should address these problems instead of being steered to the discussion of removing qualified immunity.
Over the years, academic experts have noted that Vermont policing was, in some districts, directed at the BIPOC community when it came to police stops. Much has changed through education, training, and, of course, the insertion of cameras in police cars and on-person. Presently, each Vermont state trooper has no less than four cameras.
There well might have been a time when Sen. Sears supported law enforcement, but that was in the past. He now has swung his support to the far left, and one can only wonder what he expects to receive.
What would Sears say if qualified immunity was removed from the actions of the Vermont Senate and that institution was to hold its members personally responsible for the $5 billion unfunded Vermont pension system?
Vermont needs well-vetted, trained, supervised, and compensated law enforcement. Not the removal of qualified immunity.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.