Gov. Phil Scott allowed S.119 to pass without his signature, and at least one police chief says lawmakers didn’t listen to those on the front lines as they crafted new use-of-force policies for police.
On Oct. 7, Vermont got a statewide standard and policy for law enforcement’s use of force. Among other things, the new Act 165 bans the use of neck restraints or any actions that might inhibit a suspect’s breathing. It also prohibits the use of force against anyone that poses a threat to himself or herself, and requires officers to identify themselves before initiating the use of force.
Regarding the the formulation of the new policy, Colchester Police Chief Doug Allen told True North Reports that lawmakers didn’t follow input from Vermont’s police leaders.
“Well, I will tell you we certainly tried to be at the table,” he said. “The Vermont Police Association and the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, we really were speaking this year with one voice — we worked hard in doing that. We have a lobbyist in Montpelier that we hired to try to get our voices heard, and we think it was a matter that we were speaking but not being listened to.”
Allen said lawmakers should have let police, who are on the front lines dealing with criminals every day, take a lead role in influencing details of the bill.
That opinion echoes that of Gov. Scott, who said lawmakers had “insufficient opportunity” to hear from all sides on the bill.
Another aspect of Act 165 is that it requires officers to intervene if they see another officer using a technique that isn’t approved. It further requires the Department of Public Safety and the Executive Director of Racial Equity to issue a report in February 2021 that would be used to form a model policy on the use of force.
Allen says the language of Act 165 that deals with intense physical altercations has the potential to inhibit an officer’s ability to protect the public and police.
“We have said all along that our rules and regulations have outlawed this move [choke-holds] for a very long time,” he said.
Allen added that this bill could cause increased litigation.
“That language which is unknown and untested, by adding the necessary standard, is going to create a training problem for our officers, in training to a standard that’s not proven. And it’s going to create a situation where there’s certainly going to be increased litigation until we get a clear picture of what that language is.”
He also said it will be difficult to make future adjustments to use-of-force policy since it has been put in the hands of the Legislature.
Chief Tim Page, president of the Vermont Chief of Police Association, told True North that his organization has concerns about S.119. He also said making this policy with a statute is a mistake.
“Our hopes are that we could come with a statewide policy as opposed to a statute,” he said. “Policies are easier to change, they don’t take legislative action.”
Page said to comply with this bill could mean asking taxpayers for help.
“The way that it is, it’s going to require that every police officer in Vermont needs to be trained to the new standard, so it’s going to have a cost-factor associated with it in regards to retraining the entire state,” he said.
“I’m not raising a red flag here, I’m just saying there are some things we’d like to see change, and we’d like to be able to work with the legislature this coming session to get some of those things changed and have a seat at the table,” he said.
Page said that when it comes to using force, there’s a short decision time and high stakes.
“Police have to make momentary decisions based on the situation at the time,” he said. “Hindsight is 20/20 vision, so we don’t always have that opportunity.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated to remove a statement by Colchester Police Chief Doug Allen that said lawmakers had “taken away any option, including in a lethal force situation.” An amendment passed by the House and Senate allows a chokehold in situations where lethal force is permitted.