In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of ensuing protests, Vermont’s political leadership is united in calling for criminal justice reform.
They are also united in minimizing expectations for actual, y’know, results.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Law enforcement has always gotten a full, respectful, sometimes dreamy-eyed reception in legislative committees. Police chiefs, sheriffs and state’s attorneys always wield strong influence when it comes to any issue that touches on their work, from criminal justice to substance abuse to cannabis to the deadly perils of Happy Hour.
(This post concerns our top Democratic and Progressive leaders, not Republican Gov. Phil Scott. He has made all the right noises, and I’m sure he will endorse modest reforms. But the expectations ought to be higher for the D’s and P’s.)
No surprise then, that Dem/Prog Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and Dem House Speaker Mitzi Johnson have already put the kibosh on any talk of cutting the Vermont State Police budget. Ashe, who believes it’s time for him to move up the ladder to the lieutenant governorship, offered this in lieu of leadership: “It’s one thing to say that, to communicate as part of this national discussion, but how you actually implement such a proposal is not a one size fits all.”
Spoken like a politician fleeing a hot-button issue.
Johnson asserted that Vermont has “a very different law enforcement structure than a lot of other states,” so those notorious one-size-fits-all solutions just won’t work here.
Well, I’d like to know more about how Vermont’s structure of state police, county sheriffs and municipal police departments, whose officers are armed with lethal weapons and who are primarily responsible for responding to a variety of public safety situations, is so dramatically different from the police structure elsewhere.
And whose officers have a track record of disproportionately stopping or arresting people of color and of using deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill.
Eh, I don’t think out “structure” is so different. Johnson is simply making another meaningless callout to Vermont exceptionalism.
As for Attorney General T.J. Donovan, he has tweeted that America’s criminal justice system is “broken,” and the time to fix it is “now.” But his proposed fixes are from the lipstick-on-a-pig bargain bin.
In a June 3 tweet, Donovan wrote “Our criminal justice system is broken” — and paired it with a call to study possible changes in use-of-force standards, better data collection on use-of-force incidents, and a “model policy” for “he use of force, de-escalation, & cross-cultural awareness.”
A study, more data and an unenforceable model policy. That’s not how you fix a “broken” system. That’s a Band-Aid.
Eight days later, Donovan proffered another truckload of lipstick. He called for “reinvesting into communities and shrinking the footprint of law enforcement.” The footprint, but nothing about their budgets. He wants to prohibit “no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and knee holds” — but no mention of criminal penalties for violating the prohibitions. He also endorsed several other ideas that are suddenly getting a fresh look by a chastened Legislature.
Take, for example, H.808, which would create a statewide policy for use of deadly force. That’s a policy, not an enforceable ban. The bill was introduced this January, and referred from one committee to another in February — and has languished in committee ever since. It wasn’t a hot property until George Floyd.
Now let’s turn to H.464, freshly endorsed by Donovan. It would require collection of data on the use of force in traffic stops, and “a model policy regarding the use of force, de-escalation, and cross-cultural awareness.” Exactly the same words used by Donovan in his June 3 tweet.
Hardly a radical step. But that bill was introduced in February of 2019, and hasn’t budged at all since then.
And lest anyone think the Senate has plotted a more energetic course, I refer you to S.219, which would address a broken system by [checks notes] requiring that police agencies collect racial data on traffic stops in order to receive state grant funding.
That bill was introduced on January 7, and sat in committee for six goddamn months. Now it’s suddenly on the fast track for passage.
In short, the likely fixes for policing in Vermont are a pallid collection of half-measures that were absolutely off the table until George Floyd happened. And now these half-measures will likely be brought forth and passed into law with a round of huzzahs and mutual back-slapping.
Meanwhile, Vermont continues to incarcerate people of color at a dispiritingly high rate, and there remains a pattern of racially-motivated traffic stops seemingly designed to inspire people of color to flee the state.
Just as one example, here’s an essay by Middlebury College professor Kemi Fuentes-George entitled “Automatically Suspect,” which recounts a long history of being questioned by the cops for no particular reason — including a recent occasion in that lovely, peaceful, liberal college town.
Perhaps a month after we moved in, I decided to finally go check out that adorable little library a short ways down the street, right near the alpaca farm, the playground and across from the residents who make and sell maple syrup from their house. I remember walking down Main Street and — right before entering the library — seeing the cop car drive past and do a U-turn. And, sure enough, a few moments after I sat down in the library, after I greeted the charming, elderly librarian, after I picked up whichever graphic novel caught my eye, the cop followed me in. Then came the usual: “I need to see your ID sir, we’ve had reports of suspicious behavior,” and various other rationalizations.
You’d think that following a college professor into a library would be God’s way of telling a town they have too many police. And every person of color in Vermont has similar tales to tell.
Not to ignore law enforcement’s egregious record in dealing with the mentally ill, sometimes with fatal consequences — and never with any legal implications for the officers involved. I believe that Donovan has maintained his predecessor Bill Sorrell’s spotless record of never filing charges against police in use-of-force incidents, even when the force was deadly.
Oh, but don’t fret. Our [cough] progressive leaders are all on board with better approaches to dealing with mental illness and substance use. Ashe vows Senate action to “support appropriate mental health training and the mental health workforce” so that police aren’t the point of first contact for those in distress. At the same time, he served up this shitburger of an explanation/rationalization for the Legislature’s dismal record on adequately funding mental health services:
“I do want to emphasize that our investments in mental health in recent years, well not sufficient to dig out of a hole that really developed over a long period of time, is a piece of reducing the need for law enforcement to be essentially mental health workers on so many calls.”
Again, a reminder that this is the guy who thinks he deserves to be your next lieutenant governor.
Lawmakers have short-funded social services, mental health services and substance use efforts for years. We’re heading into a year of unprecedented budget tightness. If the state police budget is held harmless, where the hell is the money going to come from?
Nowhere, that’s where. A year from now, five or ten years from now, we’ll still be stuck in this same damn place: Lamenting incidents of police violence, bemoaning evidence of racial bias in traffic stops, arrests and convictions, and timidly proposing a few incremental tweaks to a “broken” system.
A recent essay in The Atlantic was entitled “Goundhog Day Was a Horror Movie All Along.”
I know the feeling.