Governor Phil Scott has signed an executive order to accelerate a series of reforms and modernizations of public safety services in Vermont, and to initiate a comprehensive, ongoing discussion with state residents—especially historically marginalized communities—about how law enforcement can best serve communities’ needs.
The Governor’s Public Safety Reform Initiative immediately implements seven key short-term priorities, such as engaging Vermonters in robust participation in the modernization process; ensuring uniform, statewide policies regarding body-worn cameras and uses of force; improving and standardizing data collection by law enforcement agencies; and bolstering practices for hiring, training and promoting law enforcement officers.
The executive order also advances planning action on three legislative proposals for 2021, including a universal reporting portal for improper conduct allegations; a statutory mandate regarding use of force investigations and reviews; and the creation of models for community oversight.
“Vermont has been working for some time to advance these goals, at the state and local level, across party lines and in all branches of government. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis this spring, and tragedies that have followed, make it clear we need even more urgent action,” Governor Scott said. “It’s not enough just to say that Black lives matter. With this executive action, we are taking concrete steps to advance necessary reforms and modernization efforts and help ensure equity and justice for all. And this work will continue because we know there is more to do.”
Governor Scott’s order builds on a discussion that began in January when the Department of Public Safety (DPS) submitted an outline for modernizing policing in Vermont, and continued in June when DPS drafted a comprehensive 10-point strategy to accelerate the process, as well as legislation enacted in July.
The seven key short-term actions in the Governor’s executive order are:
• Community participation: The commissioner of DPS and executive director of Racial Equity are directed to actively engage with communities, particularly those that have been historically marginalized or harmed by policing, as the state develops and deploys best policing practices.
• Hiring and promotion practices: To further DPS’s ongoing work in ensuring that law enforcement agencies recruit, hire, retain and promote officers who reflect the values and diversity of the communities they serve, the commissioner of DPS is directed to work with community representatives and others to develop model processes and begin implementing enhancements to these systems. This includes hiring interviews, background investigations and polygraph and psychological examinations.
• Data: DPS and the Agency of Digital Services shall prioritize the adoption of an updated statewide computer-aided dispatch and records management data system that is standardized and mandatory for all agencies related to use of force, traffic stops, arrests, mental health and other related topics. The system must make the data available to the public more swiftly.
• Body-worn cameras: The commissioner of DPS shall work with community representatives, the executive director of Racial Equity and other stakeholders to develop for consideration of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council a statewide model policy on body-worn cameras for law enforcement that addresses activation and de-activation, privacy issues and the release of footage. In addition, the commissioner of DPS is directed to identify the scope of need for body-worn cameras by all Vermont law enforcement agencies.
• Use of force policy: The commissioner of DPS, in consultation with the executive director of Racial Equity, community representatives and others, shall develop a statewide model policy on the use of force for all Vermont law enforcement. The model policy shall establish a statewide definition for what constitutes a use of force and include best practices on when uses of force are prohibited. The model policy also must address when and under what circumstances the use of military-style equipment by police shall be prohibited and when and under what circumstances it may be necessary.
• Training: The Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council is directed to coordinate and lead efforts to develop and implement updated, statewide training schedules and methods.
• Improper conduct allegations: The commissioner of DPS, in consultation with the executive director of Racial Equity and the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, shall recommend to the Governor a statewide model policy for investigating allegations of improper conduct. The goal is to make the process of investigating allegations of misconduct easily accessible and transparent while protecting the privacy of the accused and the complainant, as well as to ensure that investigations have swift, consistent outcomes and community oversight.
The legislative proposals for 2021 outlined in the Governor’s order are:
• Universal reporting portal for improper conduct allegations: The commissioner of DPS, working with community representatives and others, shall develop for the Governor’s consideration a legislative framework for the uniform, statewide release of data and information regarding misconduct allegations. This shall include a proposal for development and implementation of a centralized statewide reporting portal and a universal phone number for reporting misconduct allegations.
• Use of force investigation and review: The commissioner of DPS, working with community representatives and others, shall propose for the Governor’s consideration a statutory mandate that all lethal force used by law enforcement and all deaths in custody are investigated by the Vermont State Police Major Crime Unit and are reviewed independently by the Office of the Attorney General and a state’s attorney in a manner free from actual and apparent conflicts of interest.
• Community oversight models: The commissioner of DPS, in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General’s Division of Human Rights and community representatives shall recommend to the Governor one or more models of civilian oversight of law enforcement to be structured in such a way as to avoid actual and apparent conflicts of interest between members of the boards and law enforcement officers in a given community.
The executive order also articulates two policies for the state, which are:
• Police tactics policy: While Vermont’s State Police and local police agencies do not currently possess or use invasive surveillance technologies, advanced autonomous weaponry, facial recognition software or predictive policing technologies, the order sets it as policy of the state that these technologies and techniques shall not be adopted by any law enforcement agency without express authorization under state law.
• Use of force policy: Upon the adoption by the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council of a model use of force policy, a police agency’s failure to adopt the model policy will result in limitations on state funding and access to training for that agency.
Full details of these initiatives are available in the executive order, which can be found here: https://governor.vermont.gov/content/executive-order-no-03-20.
“Our efforts are not a point-in-time reaction to current events, but part of our ongoing work and planning, representative of a mindful approach to the future that has only been accelerated by recent events,” DPS Commissioner Michael Schirling said. “We remain committed to advancing these significant, important initiatives swiftly, while redoubling our efforts to engage with communities throughout Vermont, the Legislature, advocacy organizations and others as we develop and shape these reforms. This conversation, and these actions and proposals, will result in the delivery of law enforcement services across the state in a more uniform, fair and just manner.”