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Legislators and advocacy groups discuss planned legislation to eliminate Qualified Immunity in Vermont

Vermont Statehouse
WAMC/Pat Bradley
The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier

The ACLU of Vermontand advocacy organizations are hoping police reform legislation will be approved in the upcoming session of the legislature.

Supporters gathered recently to discuss a bill to be introduced in the Vermont Legislature that would end qualified immunity for law enforcement officers. The National Conference of State Legislatures says the concept protects law enforcement and political officials from individual liability unless they have clearly violated an established constitutional right.

Democratic state Senator Dick Sears, chair of the Judiciary Committee, says for some time the committee has been assessing the state’s civil justice system.

“One of those gaps we found in Vermont was in access to justice. The courts created this gap by making it very difficult for victims of police misconduct to get their day in court even when that misconduct causes serious harm. Now please allow me to be perfectly clear. Like most people I support police officers. My focus here today is not on tearing down police officers but instead ensuring that people harmed by negligent policing or the rare but unacceptable bad faith policing have access to compensation for their injuries.”

Sears says good policing depends on community trust, and reforming qualified immunity related to law enforcement misconduct will rebuild that trust.

“The doctrine of qualified immunity that shields police agencies and officers from accountability was created by the courts. The legislature has never directly looked at the issue of qualified immunity. So to begin this discussion I along with Senator (Becca) Balint, Senator (Kesha) Ram Hinsdale and Senator (Philip) Baruth will be introducing a bill that would do three main things. One create access to justice to victims of harmful misconduct. Two require police agencies to indemnify police officers acting in good faith to cover the cost of any potential liability and limit personal liability of individual police officers acting in bad faith to a small set amount for potential damages.”

The National Campaign to End Qualified Immunityis a coalition of more than 2,500 business leaders, professional athletes, musicians, lawyers, clergy, retired law enforcement officers and national organizations. Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, is co-chair of the organization.

“Essentially what we’re all saying is that if we want to have good cops we need to prosecute bad cops. Why should cops be held any less accountable than you or I? What we believe and what we know is that if you want to recruit excellent law enforcement officers, support good cops and build trust in public safety then you’ve got to hold rogue cops accountable. It is absurd that police, who we hire to uphold the law, are not held accountable when they break the law.”

Colorado, New Mexico, California and New York City have eliminated Qualified Immunity.

Not everyone supports the effort. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns told VT Diggerthat the organization supports “less draconian ways” of addressing excessive force and racial bias in policing. The Vermont Troopers Association has also opposed the measure in the past.

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