Improving Public Safety

Events earlier this year both local and national have challenged Vermonters’ sense of security. The times we live in, when students are fearful about attending school and public spaces seem less safe, have called out for legislative action. In response, as I have explained in previous columns, the legislature passed rational gun restrictions earlier this year. In addition, the legislature passed Act 135, which provides an additional tool for law enforcement to improve public safety, and Act 190, which invests directly in school safety.

Act 135 creates a new crime: the felony of domestic terrorism. To show that a person has committed domestic terrorism, the prosecution must prove that the defendant took a “substantial step” toward violating a State criminal law intending to cause death or serious bodily injury to more than one person or intending to threaten any civilian population with mass destruction, mass killings or kidnapping.

A “substantial step” is an action that clearly indicates that the person is committed to engaging in future conduct that, if completed, would culminate in committing the offense. Under the substantial step test, the fact that an individual had to take further steps before completing the crime does not preclude a finding that the steps he or she has already undertaken are substantial and support a charge of domestic terrorism.
So, for example, if a person scouts out a public space or acquires an assault rifle without a lawful purpose, he could be charged with domestic terrorism if the prosecution can also show that he had the intent to kill multiple people. Without the domestic terrorism law, a prosecutor in such a situation might be able to charge attempted murder, but only if the person had been much closer to committing the crime, such as actually approaching the public space with a loaded weapon. Requiring such proximity to the actual crime in order to have a chargeable offense puts the public at higher risk.

Act 135 increases the penalty when a person knowingly possesses a firearm or a dangerous or deadly weapon on school property with the intent to injure another person. It would make a first offense a felony with a maximum sentence of three years, up from two. It would also increase the penalty for a second and subsequent offense to a maximum sentence of five years, up from three.

In Act 190, the General Assembly appropriated $4 million to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) for a School Safety and Security Grant Program (an article in the August 23rd issue of The Other Paper further explains this program). An additional $1 million for this purpose will come from federal funds. DPS must use the capital grants for planning, delivery, and equipment upgrades to existing school security equipment and for new school security equipment identified through threat assessment planning. Eligible security improvements include video monitoring and surveillance equipment, intercom systems, window coverings, exterior and interior doors, locks, and perimeter security measures. The South Burlington School District is receiving $83,859 from this grant program to help pay for $111,812 of school safety upgrades at the five district schools.

Act 190 also creates a School Safety Advisory Group to develop statewide guidelines and best practices concerning school safety and the prevention of school shootings. The Advisory Group is required to study the following issues and develop guidelines for Vermont schools: (1) improving security in and around school buildings and property, (2) ensuring staff and students know what they should do in the event of a school shooting or other incident, (3) sharing information with parents and the community if an event occurs, and (4) gathering information on security measures implemented in schools from state education and public safety departments in states where shootings have occurred. The Advisory Group is required to submit a written report to the General Assembly with its findings, including specific guidelines, best practices, and any recommendations for legislative action. In the interim, recommended school safety best practices are available from the Vermont School Safety Center.

These are helpful laws, but the legislature will need to continue to take steps to improve public safety in our State.