BENNINGTON — Consultants hired to review Bennington Police Department policies and procedures — especially concerning relationships with the community — provided an overview of the four-month study process and their expected concluding report.
The study had been suggested in the wake of former Rep. Kiah Morris' decision last year to end her re-election campaign, when she and others were critical of the department for not making any arrests concerning her complaints of racially motivated harassment and threats.
A four-person team from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was hired in August by the Select Board, will oversee the review and assessment process.
Members said during a kickoff presentation Monday that the study will involve at least two extended visits to Bennington to gather input from residents and local groups and organizations, as well as to meet with BPD officers and local officials.
Also planned are multiple initiatives to gather comments from residents and groups and collect survey responses — both during public meetings and forums and in ways that will protect the identity of the person or group providing information or registering complaints.
One member of the study team is well known locally and in Vermont. James Baker, of Arlington, a former Vermont State Police trooper in the area and later VSP director, also has served as the Vermont Police Academy director and as police chief in Manchester and in Rutland.
Baker, one of the study's subject matter experts, said he has also worked with the nonprofit IAPC's executive staff at the organization's main office in Alexandria, Virginia.
He said the nonprofit organization, with 30,000 members in 150 countries, has become a leader in the field of law enforcement review and in developing law enforcement training materials.
The IAPC and Baker were involved in an after-action review of the response to violence surrounding a white supremacist rally and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and in a review following the death of Freddie Gray, who died in 2015 while in police custody in Baltimore.
"A great deal of work has been done over the last five years at IACP, in partnership with other organizations," Baker said, and it has been "focused on community safety, centered around fair and equitable policing in communities."
Other team members include Jessie Lee, the study's lead subject matter expert, who also has worked for IACP and with the U.S. Justice Department, and is a former executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; Jennifer Nwachukwu, associate counsel with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, working on voting rights and hate crime issues; and Catherine Cruz, the IACP project coordinator.
Cruz said visits by the team are scheduled for Oct. 7-11 and tentatively for Nov. 4-8, but the process of gathering comments and information will be on-going.
A key concern of residents who have attended Select Board meetings when the study has been discussed was whether people who are reluctant to speak publicly about the BPD or officers could have their identities protected if they came forward with information.
"One thing we want to make sure of is confidentiality," Lee said, later adding, "Your information will not be captured by anyone else."
The team members said as well that no one will be identified in the final assessment and report.
In addition to public meetings with groups and during open forums, the study team will have an email address, email@example.com, which can only be accessed at the IACP offices in Virginia.
They said citizens can also email to set up a time to speak with team members during the visits to Bennington. Paper surveys also will be made available, Lee said.
He added that the team wants to ensure that information about the study and the opportunity to comment "is spread wide" around the Bennington area.
The IAPC was hired at a cost of $66,000 to review the BPD's policies and practices in comparison with acknowledged best practices nationally or internationally and to afterward provide some recommendations for improvement.
Cruz said that in addition to providing a review and report to the town and the BPD, the association maintains a large library of resources on many topics, such as with information on policies and practices used elsewhere, and that information will be made available online.
Proposed by AG
The study was first proposed by Attorney General T.J. Donovan and others after criticism earlier this year of the BPD for making no arrests after repeated complaints from Morris of online harassment and threats.
Morris ended her campaign for re-election to a third term in the Vermont House in August 2018, citing harassment and threats that had begun during the 2016 campaign season and picked up again during the 2018 campaign.
Donovan had directed the state police and a computer forensic unit to investigate, but that effort also resulted in no criminal charges being filed, he said during a media conference in January in Bennington.
However, a self-described white supremacist, Max Misch, of Bennington, who has admitted to trolling Morris online and during public events, subsequently was charged in February with two alleged violations of the state's 2018 gun control legislation — possessing illegal high-capacity magazines.
Misch's case is pending in Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division, and the law provision is being challenged on constitution grounds and awaiting a Vermont Supreme Court ruling on those issues.
Donovan said in proposing a review of Bennington policies and procedures that the BPD apparently had information about such a violation by Misch but had not shared it with the state police.
However, local officials said that was the result of misunderstandings over whether state police actually did have access to the information from a common database and over whether an alleged gun law violation BPD had information about occurred before the law provision took effect in October 2018.
Nevertheless, the Select Board later decided to seek proposals from consultants recommended by Curtiss Reed Jr., of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to conduct a study of the BPD and report to the board and residents.
Speaking Monday, board Chairman Donald Campbell asked residents to keep immediate questions to the process itself, as there "will be plenty of time" during the study for residents and groups to offer comment and input.
He said he hopes the study and assessment will allow the town and BPD to recognize areas that could be improved and lead to closer relationships with the entire community.
Nwachukwu and Lee said that in general the study will look at the core functions of the department, its programs, practices and conditions of the agency; compare policies against best practices and determine what amount of racial biases, if any, exists, and recommend possible changes.
The report also will summarize the data collected and the input with groups and individuals and recommend ways to improve community relationships.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien