House unanimous on OK of police reform bill

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MONTPELIER — The state House of Representatives on Friday overwhelmingly approved its amended version of a police reform bill that mandates race data reporting and body camera usage and establishes the use of prohibited restraints as a crime.

The bill, S. 219, was approved by the state Senate earlier this week. Its passage was a priority for House and Senate leadership despite a tight turnaround in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An amendment to the bill, and subsequent second reading, passed 147-0. A formal third reading and concurrence vote by the state Senatre had yet to be taken at press time.

The bill makes police agency collection and reporting race data on traffic stops and use of force a mandatory condition for receiving state grant funds. Its language calls for community policing strategies, a guardian mindset and a culture of transparency and accountability. It establishes the use of prohibited restraints such as chokeholds as a felony, but leaves open a "justifiable homicide" defense.

State Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, has said the committee will revisit that statute when the Legislature reconvenes in August.

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After the role call vote was taken, state Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie, in remarks addressed to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, said he was proud of the work done by the House Judiciary and Government Operations committees.

"But I am also very proud of your leadership and it needs to be commended also for personally reaching out to Vemont communities of color, our Abenaki brothers and sisters, our psychiatric survivor community and other disenfranchised Vermonters," said Christie, D-Hartford. "We as a state came together with this bill. It is meant as a step to create change, and — I repeat — a step."

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"This is truly a proud moment," Christie said. "I thank his body of allies, friends and colleagues for your support as a proud Vermont person of color. "

State Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, presented the bill in a House caucus session, held online before the body returned to formal session to vote.

Hashim, a former Vermont State Police officer, is stepping down from his Windham-4 seat in the House after serving a single two-year term. "It dawned on me this is likely the last time I present a bill to this body, so it's a bittersweet moment," he told his House colleagues.

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"I've been in a curious position on this issue over the past several weeks as it relates to ideas of preserving officer safety and addressing systemic racism," Hashim said. "The two issues are important to me, and just to be clear, the two points are not mutually exclusive."

Asked by Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, as to whether a body camera policy is part of the legislation, Hashim said it's planned to be worked on in August in consultation with stakeholders.

State Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, asked why there was not a mandatory minimum prescribed for the use of an illegal restraint. Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, responded that the Legislature has been avoiding mandatory minimums, to allow the court discretion in sentencing.

Speaking before the vote, state Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said the most important takeaway is that work on police reform must and will continue, with particular attention given to the impact on marginalized communities.

"Most importantly, that work must be inclusive because otherwise it merely perpetuates the disenfranchisement that is the very root of many of our deepest issues of inequity and injustice," she said.


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