On Thursday, the co-founders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream joined Vermont lawmakers and public safety advocates to voice support for a bill that would end qualified immunity in the state.
Bill S.254 would give Vermonters the ability to take legal action against law enforcement officers who violate their rights. Those in support of the legislation say it would bring more accountability to police departments.
“For me, championing this issue is really straightforward because constituents are asking us to create an avenue for more accountability, more oversight for law enforcement,” said Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint.
Senator Balint believes it’s time for Vermonters who have been mistreated or abused by local police, sheriffs or state police to have their day in court. If S.254 passes, they very well could. It would end qualified immunity, a legal principle that gives officials immunity from certain civil lawsuits.
“We got here because the current policing system lacks the basic tenants that our democracy was founded on, which is checks and balances,” said Steffan Gillom, President of the Windham County Branch of the Vermont NAACP.
Gillom believes longstanding flaws in U.S. law enforcement have created a culture of misbehavior.
“Imagine back to the first day you landed your dream job, or any job really. Now think back on how excited you were, and how much you were looking forward to meeting and overcoming challenges,” Gillom said. “Now imagine if on that same day, your boss came to you and told you that no matter how badly you messed up on the most essential duties of your job, you would not be fired. Do you think you would have grown in the same way?”
Chittenden county State’s Attorney Sarah George also voiced support ending qualified immunity. She acknowledged such a move may ‘scare some people’, but said it’s usually because they don’t understand the reasoning behind it.
“If we want to build trust in public safety and we want to recruit and retain highly-qualified and high quality law enforcement officers and improve public safety outcomes, then we need to bring the criminal legal system into the 21st Century,” George said.
In a recent poll conducted by the ACLU of Vermont, three out of four Vermonters indicated their support for ending qualified immunity. The bill is currently sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are co-chairs of the Campaign to End Qualified Immunity, which includes over 700 business leaders, 1,400 professional athletes, and hundreds of creative artists, lawyers and advocates. The campaign aims to lift up the stories of people who have been harmed by the police and have been denied justice due to qualified immunity.