Vermont legislators are pushing a package of police reform measures intended to be passed by this Friday, the date being set for adjournment until August when legislators address the FY2021 budget.

The reform measures include a statewide deadly force standard to be used by police, a ban on chokeholds and a process to match grants to municipalities based on their ability to compile data on racial collection policies.

The legislators’ reaction was predictable. Vermont, as with most states, is in the midst of a national reaction to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman who had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Legislators are doing what they think they can to change the police culture that promotes and protects the use of deadly force. The political environment for legislators is such that they can’t be seen as silent.

Equally predictable is the push-back from the law enforcement community, which, through the voice of its union is opposed to the legislation being considered.

But the union’s response has been little more than a misguided acknowledgement that the present political environment has no space for their misgivings. They see the legislation as a done deal. The arguments they do make come from a position of historical constancy, thinking that what they have is all they can get, that for them to change is weakness, that to hold firm is strength.

It’s anything but.

All social institutions evolve. They must if they are to remain contributors to their mission. It’s how they stay relevant and how they maintain the public’s trust and confidence. The relationship between a police force and the community it represents can’t be fully defined by a good guy versus bad guy story line. It’s far more complicated than that. And far more important.

Which is why the union representing Vermont’s law enforcement community does its officers a disservice when it fails to say what can be done to change and instead throws up roadblocks to any and all proposals advocating change. No one knows more about the challenges being faced by our officers yet, through the union they choose to hunker down, to be resistant to all proposals, thinking any change weakens who they are and what they represent. It’s an us versus them mentality that squeezes any potential for compromise-based improvement out of the equation.

For the law enforcement community it also forfeits the advantage to legislators who, with little thoughtful opposition, will push proposals that are beyond the bounds of what most Vermonters favor, which is what happens when those affected fold up their tents, preferring the company of their own, essentially playing the victim card and refusing to participate.

The law enforcement community should seize the opportunity to explain the world they inhabit but, at the same time, offer suggestions of their own as to how hiring standards could be improved, how to rid themselves of officers that bring them dishonor, and how to construct workable use-of-deadly force measures. They could be the ones articulating the need to change our gun laws, or sentencing guidelines. They could be the ones advocating for more resources to be spent on mental health. They could push for the public release of public complaints. They could be the ones exploring the role of social workers as relates to domestic violence issues.

If the law enforcement community chose not to play the role of victim but instead became an advocate for public safety through better policies, the outcome would be improved for all concerned.

by Emerson Lynn

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