The murder of George Floyd has served as a catalyst not only to reflect on racial disparities within the justice system, but also to fundamentally question the role and relationship between police and the citizens they serve. Police brutality, especially when directed toward vulnerable populations or marginalized communities, is a gross abuse of power and a violation of the trust and duty the public imparts in the profession.
In Vermont, we are fortunate to have a law enforcement profession that is largely responsible and committed to policing by our values. Nevertheless, no jurisdiction is immune from law enforcement misconduct or bad actors in uniform. Many Vermonters have expressed understandable alarm, anger and loss of trust as the number of officer-involved shootings and claims of wanton brutality by officers, has increased.
Reform of our public safety system will be multi-faceted and nuanced: simple slogans such as “defund the police” or “support the blue” do few favors in building consensus or instilling needed pragmatism in the process. Fortunately, state leaders, including Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, have taken a pro-active, reflective and comprehensive approach in proposing improvements to the law enforcement profession. Likewise, the responsiveness and leadership of the House and Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committees has been commendable.
Confidence in the integrity of law enforcement is foundational to the community-based policing models Vermonters are striving to build in our towns and cities. Simply put, we must ensure our justice system not only advances “public safety” but builds and sustains the Vermont values of compassion, tolerance and community. For many, the trooper, deputy or officer who arrives on scene is the face of that system – and it is hard to imagine a positive experience when the starting point is one of distrust.
As a state’s attorney, I recognize that training, reporting and de-escalation are critical to a 21st century police force – but it is the concept of accountability that directly intersects with my role as a prosecutor. We are overdue in taking concrete steps to improve the accountability process for law enforcement misconduct, including transparency of that process. For far too long, Vermont has operated under an ad hoc system of investigative and disciplinary responses that vary by department or municipality. Act 56 of 2017 was a step in the right direction, but it fell far short of creating a system capable of decisively responding to misconduct.
The past few months, I have engaged in dialogue with senior law enforcement officials in the county, fellow state’s attorneys, and my own team to consider the best ways to complement and support Commissioner Schirling’s Plan for Law Enforcement Modernization in Vermont, with an emphasis on accountability.
First, I am calling upon the Legislature to authorize and fund creation of an independent Office of the Inspector General for law enforcement activities to provide oversight of all law enforcement agencies in the state of Vermont. This would include a duty to collect and administer statewide data on alleged and substantiated misconduct, as well as matters that were addressed at a supervisor level and not resulting in formal disciplinary action – critical in abating poor performing personnel moving from one department to another without repercussion.
Second, the time has come for a Statewide Law Enforcement Advisory Council, based on the existing statutory structure and model of the State Police Advisory Council (SPAC). Like SPAC, this body would advise and assist law enforcement agencies and would be empowered to ensure appropriate corrective action is taken, provide advice to agencies and municipalities concerning the response to substantiated and unsubstantiated misconduct allegations, and offer recommendations, reports or other support to state and local governmental stakeholders and public on law enforcement activities, and internal affairs practices. Further, if created, this council should have the power and discretion to initiate de-certification proceedings, expanding that role outside the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council itself.
Third, we need to adopt a system of regionalized internal affairs units. Many small municipal departments struggle to field an effective internal affairs program – the independence and impartiality integral to these investigations is difficult to achieve in departments with limited personnel. I strongly encourage the Legislature to create the statutory, training and funding structures to support the creation of regionalized internal affairs units (e.g., North and South), drawn from statewide and local agencies, to promote full, fair and impartial investigations under the supervision of an inspector general and authority of a Law Enforcement Advisory Council.
Finally, I advocate for the creation of an anonymous tip line and whistleblower protections to encourage “policing within the ranks.” A tip line or anonymous reporting channel for law enforcement or other public persons, with whistleblower protections, may facilitate early investigation of, and intervention of, alleged law enforcement misconduct. It is a necessary tool to ensure claims of misconduct are not suppressed, lost or otherwise “swept under the rug.”
As a state’s attorney, no duty is more imperative than promoting fairness, impartiality and integrity within the justice system. These proposals, aimed at enhancing the accountability process, reflect foundational Vermont values: respect for the rule of law, transparency and promoting integrity. Enhancing these systems and processes will help grow a culture of accountability, and ultimately enhance public safety – these goals are not at odds with one another. My office is committed to building and supporting a law enforcement culture that allows for all who live or visit here to feel safe, welcomed and truly equal under the law.
Rory T. Thibault is Washington County State’s Attorney.