BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – A pending bill, currently in Vermont Legislature that would eliminate qualified immunity for police officers, could negatively affect local staffing of the Bellows Falls Village Police Department moving forward.
In March, the Vermont Senate advanced a bill related to maintaining the records of judgment and settlements paid by law enforcement agencies and legal analysis of qualified immunity. If the bill passes, police officers would not have any protection from “continuous lawsuits,” and essentially it would create a private right of action against law enforcement for violating rights established under Vermont law.
This could open up a “big can of worms” and greatly hinder the already difficult task of fully staffing, not only the local Bellows Falls Police Department, but also law enforcement throughout the state. The bill is being opposed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, who have indicated that such a law could eventually impact firefighters and school board members as well.
The premise behind the bill is to create more accountability for police officers; however, it could also bring about more frivolous lawsuits as well. Another suggestion considers the idea of using mandatory police surveillance cameras, but that might be unrealistic considering all the costs of such an endeavor.
“The qualified immunity bill is a very sensitive issue for the police,” Bellows Falls Town Manager Scott Pickup said in a recent interview. “Recruiting officers is becoming increasingly difficult, and I believe that exposing officers to additional legal risk would only make hiring even more difficult.
“I also believe that the real issue we need to address is additional training for officers, so that we can better equip our officers with more skills to address all of the different types of issues that they face when working.
“The last update I’ve seen is that the legislation has been significantly changed, and legislature was looking to appoint a study committee to make future recommendations.”
The Bellows Falls Village Police Department has been understaffed for a couple years now and currently only employ five fulltime officers, despite being budgeted for six. The town has considered the idea of budgeting a “hiring bonus” to help attract new officers to the staff. Other budget factors also include pending state and federal grants.