4.14.2017 – The Racial Justice Board and Fair and Impartial Policing

This week, we worked on a number of important bills but the two I heard the most about from constituents were H.492 – an act relating to the Racial Justice Oversight Board and H.523 – an act relating to fair and impartial policing.

Recent events around the country have caused us to question how well we are doing in Vermont regarding racial issues. While things in Vermont may seem superficially copacetic, we know that we have the highest rates of black males incarcerated. Additionally, law enforcement data show that there are great differences in the way folks are treated if they are people of color versus Caucasian. If we want our state to be a great place for all Vermonters to live, we need a group of thoughtful people with appropriate experience to sit down together and work to establish a clear mechanism to address the systemic disparities caused by institutional racism and implicit bias.

H.492 will establish a Racial Justice Board consisting of a total of fifteen members. Included on the Board will be the Attorney General, Defender General, Executive Director of the Criminal Justice Training Council, Executive Director of the State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, Chief Administrative Judge, Commissioner of Corrections, Commissioner of Public Safety, Executive Director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU, a representative of the Vermont Police Association, and five community members. These five members will represent the interests of communities of color and will have expertise in education, health care, implicit bias, labor and employment, and economic development.

The Racial Justice Board will be housed in the Attorney General’s office and the five community members will be appointed to four-year terms by the Attorney General. It will be the task of the Board to facilitate an ongoing, systemic review of racial justice reform across government; our justice system, education, housing, employment, and health care.

Creation of the Racial Justice Board will help us understand and address the systemic disparities that exist due to implicit bias and institutional racism. The recent analysis of data collected by law enforcement shows that people are treated differently depending on the color of their skin, which is not right and not the ideal we strive for.

The Board will monitor the collection of race-based data; recommend policies and trainings to address systemic bias; and evaluate racial justice policies, practices, and results from around the state. Additional data collection and investigation into the actual experiences of Vermonters of color will help us develop ways to understand, better address, and prevent the root causes of bias and racism.

For the last several years, the Legislature has been employing the principles of Results-Based Accountability (RBA) to the functions of government. As we assess each program, we ask three questions – how much did we do, how well did we do it, and how many people are better off as a result? The work of the Racial Justice Board will help us understand how we can do things better, make government more effective regarding programs and cost, and improve lives for all Vermonters.

The Racial Justice Board will start its work and report back to the Legislature in January of 2018 – subsequent reports will occur every two years. The Board is advisory and does not have rule-making authority. Attorney General, TJ Donovan, is strongly supportive of this initiative as are many advocates and residents from around the state. The bill passed on a strong vote of 120-25.

H.523, regarding fair and impartial policing, is the result of work that was started last biennium in Act 47 that sought to codify the creation and statewide adoption of a fair and impartial policy for law enforcement agencies to implement in Vermont. A model policy that would serve as a minimum standard for all agencies was to be created, though agencies could go further if they wanted to. To be clear, Act 47 envisioned and required a single policy.

The Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, in order to create the final model policy, included many stakeholders at collaborative meetings around the state. Concerns were raised because elements of the model policy regarding law enforcement had to do with enforcement of immigration law. Stakeholders agreed to support the model policy if it was separated into “essential” and “non-essential” components. Departments were allowed to adopt the full model policy with “essential” and “non-essential” elements, the model policy without the “non-essential” elements, or a policy using their own language as long the “essential” elements were included.

At this point, all agencies have adopted a fair and impartial policing policy but there are significant differences amongst them. There is also concern that the “non-essential” elements included in some of them might place agencies in jeopardy of violating federal immigration law, which could cause them to lose federal funding.

The goal of H.523 is to address these concerns, remedy potential problems, and create more uniformity. It requires the Criminal Justice Training Council and the Attorney General to modify the model policy to bring it into compliance with federal immigration law by October 1, 2017. It then requires the Council, in consultation with the stakeholders, to update the model policy to provide one cohesive policy for law enforcement to adopt by January 1, 2018. This is important because with great variation from agency to agency the rules of engagement between law enforcement and the public are inconsistent across the state, which may cause an individual to have drastically different experiences with law enforcement depending on their location.

Longer term, it requires law enforcement to adopt, by March 1, 2018, a fair and impartial policing policy that includes, at a minimum, each component of the Criminal Justice Training Council’s revised model policy. It directs the Council, in consultation with stakeholders, to review and, if necessary, update the model policy every other year, beginning in 2018. This will ensure that future changes to the policy can occur, if needed, without requiring further legislation. It also directs the Council and the Attorney General to review policies that do not use the model policy language to ensure they comply with the components of the model policy by April 15, 2018. The Council must work with law enforcement to correct any non-compliant policies. If a law enforcement agency has not made the recommended changes to their policy following a review by the April 2018 deadline, it is deemed to have adopted the model policy by default.

While this may sound complicated, we should be proud that Vermont is being proactive so that all our citizens are treated in a fair and impartial manner.