We applaud House lawmakers who, late last week, unanimously supported a bill that would ban police from using choke holds and mandated all state troopers to wear body cameras. The Senate unanimously had approved the bill last week.

The bill, S.219, also commits lawmakers to spell out further reform measures in coming years.

In recent weeks, Vermont lawmakers vowed to respond swiftly to the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police last month. Critics of the bill argue lawmakers are reacting to win political clout in a year House and Senate seats are up for grabs.

It is always too bad when it takes a crisis or tragedy to direct attention to a need. We feel this bill is a step in the right direction in calling for accountability and more measured responses.

The legislation requires Vermont State Police officers wear body cameras starting on Aug. 1 while lawmakers and stakeholders work to establish a policy to govern the use of the technology.

Currently, local police departments are not covered by the legislation, but the Senate lawmakers are hopeful the U.S. Congress, which is considering its own police reforms, will soon approve funding for more local departments to purchase the equipment.

If funding is approved, the legislature is expected to broaden the mandate to include local police.

The legislation also prohibits law enforcement officers from using restraints that apply pressure to “the neck, throat, windpipe or carotid artery that may prevent or hinder breathing, reduce intake of air or impede the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain.”

The most controversial aspect of the legislation is that officers who use such restraints that result in injury or death could be found guilty of a new crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison or a $50,000 fine.

In addition, SB 219 ties state grant funding for law enforcement agencies to compliance with race data collection of traffic stops, but several Democratic House members said they would like to expand the circumstances under which information is recorded.

"We're living in tumultuous times, and we all know there have been sweeping calls to drastically change law enforcement," said Rep. Nader Hashim, a Democrat from Dummerston, and a former state trooper, as he presented the bill to fellow lawmakers. "This bill is one that addresses some changes we should see happen now, while also setting the stage to create proper policy that involves hearing from the voices of those who have been marginalized.”

The work is far from over.

From the U.S. Senate floor recently, Patrick Leahy, a former prosecutor, made clear the work was beginning.

“No one will dispute that police officers have incredibly challenging jobs. No one will dispute that they are faced with difficult split second decisions that impact life and death.  But that difficulty does not excuse the fact that something is deeply wrong in our country. It does not excuse the fact that people of color have disproportionately suffered from police misconduct. People of color disproportionately are profiled by police, are stopped by the police, are arrested by police and are victims of excessive force at the hands of police,” Leahy said. “(Americans) are demanding that we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of ensuring that those charged with preserving the rule of law are also subject to it.”

The ACLU of Vermont applied its own pressure on Vermont lawmakers last week, issuing testimony that summed up the problem by stating: “As you know, in Vermont today, Black motorists are still stopped and searched at disproportionate rates, our prisons have some of the worst racial disparities in the country, images of police brutality appear regularly on video recordings, and the number of police killings is steadily increasing. For these reasons, we must underscore the point that S.219, though it may represent important progress, will not be nearly enough. Even with the changes we are urging, it will still not be enough — far more remains to be done to respond to this moment and reimagine policing in this state. To be effective, more of this urgent work must be led and articulated not by law enforcement but by other experts, particularly impacted communities and individuals whose voices are not given the same privileged position in so many of our institutions — our courts, our media, and our legislatures.”

These discussions are long overdue. But they are necessary and the decisions that come from them must pass the test of time. We must resolve – once and for all – systemic racism, and put an end to the violence that it inevitably brings.

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