The decision essentially halts the construction of the oil pipeline right above the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and it also comes as protests at the site continued to grow.
Here is another essay by my friend and member of Justice For All Marcia Hill. Her wisdom and courage shine through in all she says. Thank you Marcia!
Essay by Marcia Hill
Our country has now chosen the most openly racist president-elect in the modern era. White people elected Trump: the overwhelming majority of white men voted for him, and a slight majority of white women did also. At the very least, this implies that Trump’s racism was not a deal-breaker for those voters. At worst, some voters chose him because of his racism.
What does this mean for us as citizens? That racism is powerful and deeply entrenched in the United States is no longer in doubt, if it ever was. We are a country founded in the genocide of the Native American population and built upon the unpaid labor of African slaves. In spite of repeated efforts toward racial justice, ultimately we have not had the will to create a society that treats people fairly in schools or the workplace or in the judicial system or in our communities when it comes to race. Now we stand on the brink of turning away from even the pretense of wanting a just society.
You may or may not have voted for Donald Trump, but we all have to face that we are part of a nation that has chosen a more racist path. We have done so by permitting clearly racist practices, as in the judicial system, and we have done so by avoidance, choosing not to address the problems of race in our country.
Some white people are openly racist; I am not addressing them, since it will take generations of change to diminish that reality. I am speaking to white people of good will, regardless which candidate you supported, who do not consider themselves to be racist. To these white people, I would say: this is our responsibility. This is your responsibility, yours and mine. This is true even if you voted for Hillary Clinton or another candidate. We have made many gains, but we have not eliminated racial inequality. All white people have white privilege, and we have not used our privilege effectively to change racism in the United States. We must do it now, with intention and persistence. Here are some suggestions.
1. Every day, remember that you are a white person with unearned privilege. People of color do not have the luxury of forgetting who they are in this country. Being white is not a bad thing, and you did not ask for white privilege. If you forget that you have it, however, you are complicit with a racial system that benefits some over others and does so unremarked.
2. Talk about race. Especially talk with other white people about race. Racism thrives when it is not discussed. Conversely, it is difficult to hold onto a bias when you expose it to scrutiny.
3. Educate yourself about race. Two good books are The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Understanding and Dismantling Racism by William Brandt.
4. If it is safe to do so, intervene when you see instances of racism. Remember that racism includes bias against Muslims as well as anti-Semitism. The time has come to speak up. Silence is a form of collusion.
5. Stay aware of your values. Antiracist work and life is grounded in the honoring of all people, in the longing for beloved community, in the sacred task of truly loving your neighbor.
We have a challenging road ahead. The racist roots of America have been uncovered. We are at a crossroads: who will we become? Complacency is a form of agreement with the status quo. An internal belief in equality is not enough. We must act. Even if we are afraid, we must act. With the fiercest of love, we must act.
For immediate Release:
Montpelier, Vermont November 2, 2016 – Justice For All announced the initial appointment of a Board of Directors. These Directors will provide the oversight and vision to lead the Vermont based, racial justice nonprofit organization into 2017 and beyond.
Members of the board include Joan Javier Duval, Minister of the Unitarian Church of Montpelier; Faisal Gill, Partner with Gill Investment Group and recent candidate for Vermont State Senate; Kevin (Coach Christie), an educator and coach in Vermont for over the last 40 years; Claudia Pringles, an attorney with a practice dedicated to special needs; Kesha Ram, former Vermont legislator and Lieutenant Governor candidate; Joseph Gainza, Founder of Vermont Action for Peace and lifelong peace and justice activist; David Scherr, a practicing attorney, member of the board of trustees for the Farm Wilderness Foundation and former candidate for state senate; Christine Longmore, Burlington Police Commissioner and Offender Workforce Development Program Manager, and Allyson Sironi, Co-founder of Justice For All. “I am excited to have such a powerhouse of passion, professionalism, vision and leadership” Mark Hughes, Co-founder of Justice For All commented.
About Justice For All
Justice for All is a Vermont-based, racial justice non-profit organization that identifies and dismantles institutionalized racism and facilitates healing and empowerment in Vermont communities. They ensure justice for all through community organizing, research, education, community policing, legislative reform and judicial monitoring. To this end they address systemic issues such as racially biased policing and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Justice For All Continues Work!
Justice For All was founded two-and-a half years ago as we became angered and frustrated at the fact that black American (men) were being killed by law enforcement with seeming impunity. Our vision began to grow as we discovered that the problem that we were seeing actually went far beyond law enforcement and indeed was pervasive throughout the entire criminal justice system. Through our research, we then came to understand that because our nation was stolen in genocide and built on slavery, all of us have biases that inform our decisions. As a result of this we have made progress in understanding the racial disparities that have been created in not only the criminal justice system but in areas of employment, housing, education, health services and the political process itself. In light of the high bar that exists in our legal system to enable relief to be provided from this oppression we have relegated to discussions on implicit bias with hopes that some voluntary progress can be made on a path forward towards equality.
We address institutionalized racism from an implicit bias perspective, while seeking to cultivate relationships and working a systematic approach within institutions and educating and facilitating empowerment in communities. We see now more than ever, as a result of the racial referendum communicated by our national elections that this approach to the work of racial justice reform must be shared (and expanded upon) across our communities in Vermont and beyond. It is our hope that as we work in collaboration with state and local officials, we create a model that we can hold up for other states to emulate in addressing the racial disparities created by institutionalized racism.
Now is the time become a supporter or member of Justice For All or offer your contributions to our continued work. Here are some additional opportunities to support the ongoing work that Justice For All is doing.
- Here, you can support the #DecisionPoints campaign where we are working to determine innovative approaches to data collection to provide transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system.
- Here is an opportunity to sign our ongoing petition for civilian oversight of all law enforcement in the state of Vermont.
- And here is you chance to sign our existing petition and/or contribute to the associated fundraiser for our Racial Justice Reform and Vermont Constitutional Amendment campaign.
Come out and join us at an Action Meeting and learn how you can become involved in the many ongoing activities and offer your support in outreach, research and relationship management. Help us drive the membership of this vitally important organically grown Vermont-based racial justice nonprofit. Our resolve to do this work will not be shaken. Current national issues only validate the importance of the work we do. We need you now more than ever to join us in the proactive work that we are doing to advance the cause of racial justice in Vermont and beyond.
Mark Hughes, JFA Co-Founder
About Justice For All
Justice for All is a racial justice organization, which identifies and dismantles institutionalized racism while facilitating healing in our communities. Our mission is to ensure justice for ALL through community organizing, research, education, community policing, legislative reform, and judicial monitoring. We address systemic issues such as racially biased policing and inequities in the criminal justice system.
A black church in the Mississippi Delta was burned and vandalized with pro-Trump graffiti in what law enforcement is now calling an attempt at voter intimidation.
To White Vermonters: Thinking About Being White
I am a white person. But I did not always think of myself as a white person. When you are in the majority, you have the luxury of thinking of yourself as just a “person,” and people not like you become the specific others, like “black people” and “Hispanics.” You can see the problem here. If white people are the default, then everyone else becomes “racialized,” identified by their non-white race. White people in America do not have to think about race. So I try to remember that I am a white person and that that is just one of several races. I try to remember that race itself is an invented concept which did not always exist.
Racism has been referred to as America’s original sin, and no one wants to be identified as a racist. I used to think that some white people were racists and some were not, each by choice. But the hard truth is that if you grew up in this country and are white, you learned racism. “Not me!” I want to say. “My parents taught me to respect all people.” My parents, however, were a tiny drop in the tidal wave of racism. It’s everywhere.
Imagine that you lived in a world that, long before you were born, arranged to separate you from a large portion of humanity. Imagine further that this was done in a way that made it very difficult for you to notice it. First, society was arranged so that your group and the other group, for the most part, lived in different places and went to different schools. Your group got benefits that the other group did not: more jobs, higher pay, better housing, better schools, better medical care, improved treatment by those in authority. Your group occupied most government positions, made the laws, headed industry, and was shown as heroic to children. Even worse, you were taught the implicit myth that the other group was responsible for their position in life. You were taught they were unambitious, unintelligent criminals.
This is the world we live in, and this is white privilege.
Joseph Barndt, in Understanding and Dismantling Racism, defines a racist as “any white person who willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly participates in and benefits from white power and privilege” (p. 115). This is very different from intentional bigotry. All white people benefit from white privilege, whether we want to or not. We cannot choose not to participate. We benefit from white privilege even if we are not privileged in other ways: even if we are poor, or disabled, or female, or queer.
If you’re white, it’s easier to get a loan or job; businesses, institutions and government agencies are more responsive to white people. We are less likely to be stopped by police or followed in stores, and if we are, we are given the benefit of the doubt. We see ourselves in textbooks: did you learn that white people made America great? We even see ourselves in depictions of biblical figures. As Barndt says, “Everything goes better with whiteness” (p. 106).
Rarely is this intentional. State employees and bank loan officers do not get up in the morning planning to treat people differently based on skin color. Racism is self-perpetuating, and we do not need to actively choose it in order to participate. Rarely, especially here in Vermont, are we in a position to notice that we are being treated better than people of color. We will need to ask ourselves the question: how might this interaction have gone if I were not white? Racism wants us to give and receive its benefits without awareness. Questioning white privilege threatens racism to its very core.Knowing that, there is a world of possibility in choosing to see white privilege.
Although difficult to admit to myself, I have benefitted from racism. My white skin has meant that I have lived my entire life in a culture designed (at least racially) for my advantage. There are benefits to acknowledging white privilege. It means that you can be open to change. People often say that they don’t see race. If you “don’t see race,” you won’t see racism.
If Vermont is to lead the nation in this struggle about race, one place to start is to think about what it means to be white and what it means to have white privilege. Grace Lee Boggs, a lifelong activist for racial justice, reminds us that “Revolution is evolution toward something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being.” Are you willing to work for that?
Here are three steps you can take: 1) Think of yourself as a white person. 2) Look for situations in which you take for granted that your race is not a barrier to success and may even be a benefit. 3) And finally, admit that you have benefitted from, and continue to benefit from, racism. To solve a problem, you first have to see the problem. White Vermonters, let’s work together and begin to solve this.
But what about racial bias in the rest of Vermont’s criminal justice system?
A recent national report by the Sentencing Project on racial and ethnic disparities in state prisons says Vermont has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates of African Americans compared to whites, based on the state’s population; a ratio of more than 10:1.
Audio for this piece will be posted.
In other words, the percentage of blacks in Vermont’s prisons is 10 times the percentage of blacks in the state’s overall population.
“I guess what I’m surprised about is where we stood on a national level,” says Mark Hughes, co-founder of the Montpelier-based organization Justice For All.
“Department of Corrections, they don’t drive around picking folks up arbitrarily, there’s an entire criminal justice apparatus that we need to acknowledge,” Hughes adds.
Attorney Robert Appel served for eight years as the state’s Defender General.
He says in a place like Vermont, with an overwhelmingly white population, our own stereotyping and biases are at the root of racial disparities in the state’s prisons.
“I think the reason we have such gross disparity in the incarcerative population for African Americans is because they’re more likely to be drawn to the attention to the police,” Appel says.
“In fairness to the police, community members call up and say, ‘there’s three black male teenagers hanging out in the parking lot, they have their hats on sideways and they’re wearing baggy pants. Send a car’. And they found something, or it escalated.”
Appel compares the criminal justice system to a funnel. Law enforcement is the wide entry point, which is why he says there should be a focus on bias in policing.
But Appel says there are plenty of other opportunities for racial bias to show up in the multitude of choices made by prosecutors, by courts and by the corrections department.
Every step of the way there are decisions about bail, plea agreements, sentencing recommendations and parole – all potentially subject to the biases of those who make them.
“It’s discretion upon discretion, upon discretion, upon discretion, upon discretion,” says Appel.
For example, Vermont’s 14 State’s Attorneys who prosecute cases operate fairly independently. No research has been done on possible racial bias in how they handle cases, although a recently-adopted information system could be used in future studies.
When David Cahill became Windsor County State’s Attorney last January he took a system usually used for the most serious crimes, like murders, and applied it to other cases.
Cahill says he makes decisions about whether to bring charges against someone without looking at information about the person’s race or even gender.
When considering plea bargains or sentencing recommendations, Cahill says he takes steps to make sure his recommendations aren’t outside of the norm.
“Recognizing that everyone has some implicit bias, the key is to take steps and mitigate it,” says Cahill.
Cahill, who until recently was head of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, says he’s not sure of the approach taken by other state’s attorney’s.
And there aren’t any guidelines. Cahill says one goal of a recently-created best practices committee is to establish guidelines.
“The potential for unjust outcomes exists. I can’t point to any single case, but I can tell you theoretically that that potential exists and it probably does in actuality,” he says.
Cahill says there may be other ways to look at the high percentage of African Americans in Vermont prisons.
Because of the movement of drugs from inner-city urban areas into Vermont, the prison population is made up partly of people from out of state. So it could reflect places with a very different racial makeup than Vermont’s.
“And the reality is that all of the urban areas to our south are much more diverse than Vermont. When folks from those cities bring heroin with them, they are bringing some of the cultural, ethnic and racial makeup of their area with them,” he says.
According to the Vermont-based Crime Research Group, data on race and residency of Vermont’s prison population is not readily available.
In 2015, the Crime Research Group issued a study called Race and Sentencing in Vermont, which looked strictly at prison sentences for a variety of misdemeanor convictions.
“This study found no evidence of systematic racial bias in sentencing,” says Brian Grearson, the court system’s Chief Superior Judge. Grearson oversees the administration and assignment of the Superior Court trial judges.
The study didn’t attempt to answer why Vermont has a significant racial disparity in incarceration rates.
“You’ve still got to ask the question, why are the numbers the way they are? That’s the question that has to be answered,” Grearson says.
Traffic stop data point to bias in law enforcement as a factor, but we don’t have data on many other aspects of the criminal justice system.
“How do we get at those areas in the criminal justice system where that discretionary authority exists, in the same way we’ve taken a look at law enforcement officers,” says Mark Hughes of Justice For All.
“How do we take a look at that in those other decision making points to be able to measure it so we can manage it moving forward.”
Hughes says collecting data, creating policies and providing training to everyone in the criminal justice system is part of the answer.
Hughes and others also point to larger issues that underlie bias and need to be addressed, including cultural and historical attitudes about race and sharp racial inequities in economic and educational opportunities.
Video released Friday shows Chicago police firing repeatedly at a stolen car as it careens down the street away from them, then handcuffing the mortally wounded black teenager who was at the wheel after a chaotic foot chase through a residential neighborhood.
None of the footage from last month shows the suspected car thief getting shot in the back. Moments later, Paul O’Neal can be seen lying face-down on the ground, blood soaking through his T-shirt.
An officer is heard angrily accusing him of firing at police. Another officer asks, “They shot at us too, right?” suggesting police believed they had been fired upon and that they did not know how many suspects were present.
No gun was recovered from the scene.
Attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents O’Neal’s family, said the video showed officers taking “street justice into their own hands.”
In all, nine videos were released from both body cameras and at least one dashboard camera. It was the city’s first release of video of a fatal police shooting under a new policy that calls for such material to be made public within 60 days. That and other policy changes represent an effort to restore public confidence in the department after video released last year showed a black teenager named Laquan McDonald getting shot 16 times by a white officer. That video sparked protests and led to the ouster of the former police superintendent.
On the latest videos, an officer can be heard explaining that the suspect “almost hit my partner. I (expletive) shot at him.” Another officer who apparently fired his weapon laments that he was going to be on “desk duty for 30 (expletive) days now.”
The recording catches the stolen car being pursued by officers as it blows through a stop sign. Before the gunfire breaks out, the 18-year-old suspect sideswipes one squad car. As the officers open fire, he smashes into another.
Soon after the July 28 shooting, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stripped three of the officers of their police powers after a preliminary investigation concluded they had violated department policy. On Friday, he promised that if officers acted improperly they would “be held accountable for their actions.”
Authorities have not said specifically what policy the officers broke.
In February 2015, former Superintendent Garry McCarthy revised the department’s policy on the use of deadly force to prohibit officers from “firing at or into a moving vehicle when the vehicle is the only force used against the sworn member or another person.”
But the policy also says that officers “will not unreasonably endanger themselves or another person to conform to the restrictions of this directive,” meaning they have the right to defend themselves if they or someone else are in imminent danger of being struck.
The head of the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency that investigates Chicago police misconduct, called the footage “shocking and disturbing.” She did not elaborate.
The officer who killed O’Neal said that he believed O’Neal had fired at him. “I discharged three to five rounds, maybe,” he told a supervisor. “I heard gunshots coming at us.”
The moment of the shooting was not recorded because the officer’s body camera was not operating at the time, police said.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the officer’s body camera could have been deactivated when the stolen Jaguar slammed into his squad car and set off the air bags. He also pointed out that the body camera suddenly starts working after the shooting — an indication that the officer, believing the incident was over, thought he was turning the camera off when he was actually turning it on.
“We don’t believe there was any intentional misconduct with body cameras,” he said.
Oppenheimer alleged that the non-operating body camera was part of a police effort to cover-up what he called a “cold-blooded murder.”
Officers seemed keenly aware that they were wearing body cameras and that those cameras were recording all of their comments. At one point, an officer can be seen telling others that he did not know who was firing. Then another officer came up and said, ‘Hey,’ perhaps a quiet reminder about the cameras. Whatever the intent, the officers immediately stopped talking.
Oppenheimer said O’Neal’s family viewed the video Friday and were so distraught that they left without speaking to the media.
During the pursuit, more than a half-dozen officers race between houses into backyards in a desperate search for the person who fled from the car. One officer needs help scaling a wooden gate. Another officer is unable to climb over and walks around to the rear of another home where the suspect is on the ground.
One officer can be heard saying, “I shot. I don’t know who was shooting in the alley.”
The president of the Chicago police union complained about the release of the videos, saying it was unfair to the officers, could turn public opinion against them and even jeopardize their own safety.
“These guys live in the neighborhoods. Their kids go to school, and their photos will be all over the internet,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they did anything wrong, but someone may see it and perceive the officers should not have taken the actions they did.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the attorney’s name is spelled Oppenheimer, not Oppenheimerk.
We Call For Racial Justice Reform And The Removal Of All Reference To Slavery From The Vermont Constitution
The racial climate in The United states continues to deteriorate with shootings of African Americans by law enforcement and even murders of law enforcement officers! Vermont is not immune to the unprecedented racial justice tensions that we are experiencing in the United States. Vermont ranks highest the nation at a rate of 1 in 14 African American males in State Prison (Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing project). Racial disparities in police traffic stops made by Burlington, South Burlington, Colchester, UVM and State police have increased over the last number of years (McDevett, Northestern University and Seguino, UVM). Something has to be done here at home to raise the awareness of this crisis. This is the time to advance dialogue and take action on racial disparities in Vermont
Partnering with Black Lives Matter Vermont, Justice For All has launched a Racial Justice Reform Campaign. Together we have created a petition with an action plan to improve the racial justice climate in Vermont. The partnership will also offer film viewings, candidate reviews (panel addressing racial justice) and action meetings (community action planning) in counties across the state. They will also release public television series that will provide an ongoing discussion and updates on racial disparities in Vermont.
We have called for a Constitutional Amendment that eliminates all reference to slavery from the Vermont State Constitution.
“…no person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like…”
Constitution of the State of Vermont, CHAPTER I. A DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THE INHABITANTS OF THE STATE OF VERMONT, Article 1st. All persons born free; their natural rights; slavery prohibited.
We are also calling on legislators to provide appropriate funding to implement effective transparency into the criminal justice system. Grants must also be funded to provide resources for racial justice organizations for research, training and education.
Racial disparities in Vermont touches additionally upon access to housing, educational institutions, access to healthcare, employment and various aspects of the political process. It is for this reason that we are asking that the Governor appoint a Racial Justice Oversight Board with the responsibility of administering a program that continuously assesses, reviews and addresses racial disparities in Vermont.
Black Lives Matter Vermont and Justice For All are conducting a fundraiser to offset the time and expenses associated with the Racial Justice Reform Campaign. We need your support. Please help us at this critical time with this very important work. We will keep you updated on our progress by sharing with you our major milestones
Here is the petition.
Please donate here.
We Need Police Oversight. Period.
Constitution of The State of Vermont
A DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THE INHABITANTS
OF THE STATE OF VERMONT
Article 5. [Internal police]
That the people of this state by their legal representatives, have the sole, inherent, and exclusive right of governing and regulating the internal police of the same.
The Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Currently decertification can happen only under narrow circumstances, leaving open the possibility that problem officers can hop between departments. But how to remedy that is the subject of debate.
After accusations surfaced that two Rutland City police officers had committed acts of serious misconduct while on the job, an internal investigation found they had engaged in racial profiling. The city paid a $975,000 settlement in a related civil lawsuit, and both officers have left the Rutland force.
But the officers were not at risk of losing their police certification in Vermont. Decertification can happen only under narrow circumstances, leaving open the possibility that problem officers can hop between departments.
Civil rights advocates, lawmakers and many public safety professionals agree the current system for disciplining and decertifying law enforcement officers in Vermont is insufficient. What a new system should look like, however, draws less agreement.
Some are concerned that a new process might impinge on officers’ right to due process. Some see a need for greater consistency across the state’s patchwork of law enforcement agencies. Others say the process needs much more sunlight and civilian input.
Now, an eight-member committee, directed by the Legislature to meet over the summer, is working toward reconciling the different perspectives.
Under the current system, the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council decertifies officers for two primary reasons: if the officer has been convicted of a felony, or if the officer is out of compliance with training requirements. The council can also revoke a certification if it was issued as a result of fraud or in error.
According to the council’s website, six Vermont police officers have been decertified for felony convictions and four for training issues since June 2013. Another was suspended while in training.
Richard Gauthier, left, is executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. Next to him is Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell, the council chair. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Richard Gauthier, executive director of the training council, said this week that the current process is not sufficient. Even in cases of clear professional misconduct, the council often does not have authority to decertify officers so they cannot work for other agencies.
Lawmakers on the Senate Government Operations Committee worked on establishing a new system for decertification during the 2016 session, but the bill collapsed before a vote. Ultimately the Legislature passed a bill that included the creation of an eight-member committee to make recommendations on certification and discipline ahead of the next legislative session.
Gauthier is part of the summer committee, which also includes representatives from four police associations, a law enforcement member of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, and representatives from the Department of Public Safety and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Gauthier said there has been discussion of a statewide decertification process for decades. He welcomes development of a broader statewide oversight policy.
“We’re starting to approach the level of accountability that nurses and teachers and everybody else has in the state,” Gauthier said.
Kelly Price, a game warden with the Department of Fish and Wildlife who is representing the VSEA on the committee, followed the discussions closely during the legislative session.
“There’s no disagreement that we do need to come up with something that holds officers accountable,” Price said.
But Price is wary of expanding the authority of the training council to overturn results of internal department investigations.
“The concern is that it could be abused,” Price said.
In legislative discussions about establishing a decertification process earlier this year, concerns were raised about how the policy would apply to the Vermont State Police.
Under statute, internal affairs issues within the statewide police force go before the State Police Advisory Commission. There were some concerns that state troopers would not be subject to the same oversight and scrutiny as the rest of the state’s law enforcement officers, according to Price.
Maj. Bill Sheets of the Vermont State Police, who is also vice chair of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, said the State Police is behind the effort to establish clearer internal affairs policies and to make the system of accountability and decertification more robust.
“We support anything that can improve our profession,” Sheets said.
Sheets said he believes the State Police Advisory Commission needs to be referenced in the bill because it is already in statute. He expects the decertification policy under the training council would complement the advisory commission, as it would the internal affairs policies of any other law enforcement agency in Vermont.
Allen Gilbert, retiring executive director of ACLU-Vermont. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Allen Gilbert, the soon-to-retire executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said oversight of police has been an important issue in the state for more than 200 years: It is the subject of Article 5 of the Vermont Constitution.
Gilbert has been monitoring shortfalls in the state’s police oversight system for a decade.
“It’s not just about disciplining an officer who engages in unprofessional conduct,” Gilbert said. “It’s all about having a system that the public trusts to keep officers the professionals they all want to be.”
The ACLU would favor a police licensing system similar to that in place for many other professions including the medical and legal fields, according to Gilbert. He emphasized the importance of including citizens who are not affiliated with police in the oversight process.
With a licensing system, Gilbert said, the state would “get the independent oversight that creates better professionalism and gives a sense to the public that they can trust the oversight.”
Mark Hughes, of the racial justice group Justice for All, has attended the committee meetings on decertification so far.
Hughes said he sees a fundamental flaw. He believes oversight must be by an independent civilian group, rather than by law enforcement.
“I think that no matter what comes out of this, it’s not going to be enough, because if you start off in the wrong place you’re never going to get to where you have to go,” he said.
Hughes said establishing civilian oversight of police departments is an increasingly popular recommendation for bolstering transparency and trust between law enforcement and the public. It is one of the recommendations from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, he said.
“It’s imperative that we as civilians understand what’s going on inside of these agencies where these folks have been charged to serve and protect us,” Hughes said. “It is necessary that (police officers) be held to a higher standard because of their roles and responsibilities.”
Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell, who chairs the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, said Tuesday that “clearly something has to be done” to expand the decertification process because the current system is too limited.
As a municipal chief, Brickell hopes the committee will be able to resolve the issues to implement a new policy. He defended the role of the training council in oversight of officer conduct and said it includes two positions for civilians who are involved with decertification decisions.
“It’s not like just police are looking at this issue, but we are the ones that really best understand the profession,” Brickell said.
Brickell also said the council is transparent about the process, holding open meetings and posting decertification decisions online. Gauthier said the potential exists to add more members of the public to the council as part of the effort to expand the oversight process.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a member of the Senate Government Operations Committee, said the committee decided to postpone action on any legislation earlier this year in order to allow the major players involved with the discussion more time to reconcile their differences.
“I’m interested in making sure that law enforcement interacts with the public and itself in a consistent manner,” Benning said.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who chairs Government Operations, said her committee opted to wait until the various representatives of different facets of Vermont’s law enforcement agencies could iron out some of the issues.
“Everybody’s going to have to agree on what the recommendations are,” White said.
She sees a need to look at the oversight and disciplinary policies in place at a statewide level.
“We take hairdressers’ licenses away from them,” White said. “Why would we not consider doing the same thing for law enforcement?”