Law Enforcement Use of Force

Last year, the legislature passed bills to transform law enforcement in Vermont.  During the current off-session, I have been working with other legislators to understand the status of these police-reform initiatives and identify potential legislative action for the upcoming session that starts in January. The Vermont law enforcement community has made significant progress in implementing the reforms that the legislature required in Act 165 of 2020 and Act 166 of 2020.

In August of this year, after extensive opportunity for public comment, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) issued a final policy to implement the use-of-force standards the legislature had mandated in Act 166. Those standards clarified when different levels of force, including lethal force, may be used by law enforcement and emphasized de-escalation to avoid the need to use force. By the end of September, DPS, along with the Vermont State Police, Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Vermont Police Association (VPA), trained over 1000 officers on the new use-of-force law and policy, representing 78% of officers statewide. Additionally, the VPA confirmed that all Vermont law enforcement agencies had adopted the use-of-force policy.

The legislature has delegated to the Criminal Justice Council the task of establishing rules, policies, regulations, and standards for certification and training of Vermont’s law enforcement personnel. The Council is continuing its review of necessary changes to training. Although initial use-of-force training was successfully implemented, a full assessment is still forthcoming of whether the Council is able to provide appropriate training for fair and impartial policing, including in the areas of cultural awareness and implicit bias. To ensure that the Council can effectively train officers in the manner that the legislature and communities expect, additional resources for the Council and the Police Academy may be required. They may need additional staff to fully assess training needs, change training policies and models, and ensure accreditation and accountability of agencies. In addition, funding for equipment and software for virtual training through a simulator would help address ongoing training needs in small rural agencies or those facing staffing shortages.

How well the use-of-force and fair and impartial policing policies improve law enforcement practices depends not only on training, but also on the ability and character of the officers. To that end, earlier this year and in compliance with the requirements of Act 165, the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee of the DPS provided recommendations on the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of officers. These recommendations emphasize the values of fair and impartial policing, treatment of all persons with dignity and respect, and the sanctity of life. They provide guidance on recruitment and selection of officers, including a list of suggested reasons for disqualifying a candidate from the hiring process.  They also address background checks, noting that hiring agencies must contact prior or current law enforcement employers regarding the performance of applicants, a statutory requirement put in place in Vermont in 2017 and expanded last year.

Ensuring that law enforcement agencies are following use-of-force and fair and impartial policing policies also requires improved transparency, including through broader use of body-worn cameras.  Earlier this year, the Law Enforcement Advisory Board, as required by Act 165, provided an updated state-wide policy for the use of body-worn cameras. In addition, the legislature funded the purchase of these devices for all Vermont State Police officers. Some local police agencies are also starting to use the devices, but cost may be a prohibitive factor for smaller agencies, an issue that should receive legislative attention.

Act 165 recognized that transparency may be improved in other manners.  The Act tasked the Attorney General’s office with recommending models of civilian oversight of law enforcement, identifying a central point for reporting allegations of officer misconduct, and determining how those allegations should be handled. The recommendations, which are not expected until late 2021 or early 2022, may or may not require legislative action.

Still more law enforcement-related issues need attention. For example, the use-of-force policy includes guidelines for officers confronted with individuals who are suffering a mental health crisis. Among other actions, it states that “officers should consider whether summoning a trained crisis negotiator or mental health clinician would be appropriate.” To be able to exercise this option, such negotiators or clinicians need to be available, which is not the case in all parts of the State or at all times of day. Additionally, law enforcement is approaching a staffing crisis. The number of officers leaving Vermont police departments is outpacing the number being hired or certified. At this time, I believe the main role for the legislature is to provide the necessary resources so progress continues on the ongoing reform initiatives. Those initiatives will help inspire confidence from the community as law enforcement fulfills its responsibilities to ensure public safety.