Committee mulls process for police officer decertification
RUTLAND >> 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, 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, 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?"
Elizabeth Hewitt is the criminal justice reporter for VTDigger.
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