Last Thursday on the floor of the House, state representatives debated what Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, would later call “one of the most important legislative issues this year” on an issue that has not received a lot of attention: bias-free policing.
The bill in question, S. 184, proposed a straightforward premise: that police throughout the state should not practice racial profiling and that the legislature would not tolerate it by any department. The bill specifically requires all law enforcement departments to adopt bias-free policing policies. Those policies were incorporated into law in 2011, but largely ignored. This bill requires police to document the ethnicity of the person stopped for questioning (or any traffic violation) in order to document police practices. Opponents of the measure argue that it would burden police officers with more paper work, and hamper police work.
After 90 minutes of, at times, tense debate, the measure passed 138-3. The discussion merits note, not because of the overwhelming support of the bill, but because of the fractious debate to get there.
Rep. Douglas Gage, R-Rutland, represented opposition to the bill: “Profiling happens in a number of areas,” he said during the floor debate, “… but I think collecting data on this would put one more burden on the local police officer.”
Rep. Warren W. Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, took a similar tack as one of the three representatives opposed to the measure.
“I voted against this bill due to its invasive reporting requirements,” he said in an email sent to the Addison Independent. “This part of the cure is worse than the disease. The overall effect will mentally handcuff far too many hard-working police officers during the legal performance of their duties and lead to the degradation of public safety — the basic duty of government…The public is better served by increased patrols rather than endless meetings and reports concerning statistical anomalies.”
We respect Rep. Van Wyck’s right to express his opinion and maintain his perspective on the issue. The rationale is sound, if preserving a police officer’s maximum flexibility to prosecute anyone suspect is paramount.
The principle, however, is anything but sound.
The conflict is at the core of several issues separating liberal and conservative policies: conservatives who believe that the basic duty of government is public safety (gun rights, death penalty, police policies that put law enforcement privileges ahead of rights of the individual) are often at odds with more liberal legislators who believe the protection of an individual’s civil rights to be the greater liberty.
In this particular case, it’s the prospect of police harassing or questioning a citizen or immigrant based on no more evidence than the color of one’s skin that is offensive and detrimental to a just society.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, was emphatic in his defense of the bill: “It is not OK — it is not OK — for someone to travel in one part of Vermont and to fear being racially profiled because that part of Vermont does not have law enforcement policies which are consistent with bias-free policing.”
Rep. Kevin Christie, D-White River Junction, is the House’s only African-American representative in what is often called a “lily-white” state. He brought the issue into perspective for his fellow legislators: “Until you are followed in a store for no reason, treated differently for no reason, or stopped by an officer for no reason, it may seem difficult to understand why we need to legislate equity.”
If signed into law, the bill will require law enforcement officials to note the ethnicity of the person pulled over in the report (done for every stop.) That very notation will check a police officer’s impulses for racial profiling, and make sure the stop is based on legitimate suspicion of criminal activity or a violation of state law — not a stop based on a hunch that a person whose skin is not white is suspect.
To achieve this modicum of justice, the added paperwork is a small price to pay.
Angelo S. Lynn