Note: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. on April 24, 2020.
BENNINGTON — The state branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP on Friday said a report released this week on Bennington Police Department policies and procedures describes "a department that is badly out of step with best practices and deeply mistrusted by Bennington community members," and offered to work with the town in making changes.
In a joint statement, Tabitha Moore, NAACP state director, and James Lyall, ACLU of Vermont executive director, gave support to the creation of a civilian oversight board, one of about 25 recommendations included in the 55-page report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The report "catalogues numerous deficiencies in BPD — which has long faced complaints of biased policing and is the subject of an ACLU racial profiling lawsuit," the statement reads. At the same time, they argued that the report "sidesteps available data and analysis showing pronounced racial disparities in BPD traffic stops and makes no mention of multiple Vermont Supreme Court decisions concerning unlawful BPD traffic stops of Black motorists."
The report, commissioned by the town in August on the recommendation of Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, was released on Monday. The presentation is available for viewing through the CAT-TV website and its Facebook page, with a link provided on the town's website.
The Select Board has scheduled a May 4 meeting to review the report's recommendations. The IACP is accepting questions and comments at http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/BPDReportQuestions or at BenningtonVT@theIACP.org.
On the key question of whether there was any racial bias to be found in the policies and procedures of the Bennington Police Department, the IACP determined that "policies appear neutral but the lack of policy in other areas may lead to bias in implementation of the current policies. Furthermore, additional areas of policy that are not currently part of BPD policies could add value to the BPD, increase accountability, and build trust and legitimacy in the community."
"Bennington was unable to provide full and detailed data, policies, and vision and mission statements that clearly address bias-free practices; economic or past criminal record(s); and gender, sexual preferences, or racial disparities, which suggests that data collection, analysis, and dissemination processes need to be examined," the report states.
The state ACLU and NAACP had called for an investigation last year, following allegations that Bennington officials withheld relevant evidence from Donovan’s investigation into the harassment of former state Rep. Kiah Morris. The IACP report does not address the allegations, though Town Manager Stuart Hurd has said that the police department cooperated fully in Donovan’s investigation and turned over all requested information concerning the complaints from Morris and her husband, James Lawton.
Morris and others had been critical of the department for not making any arrests concerning her complaints of racially motivated harassment and threats, leading to her leaving office. The attorney general's office found that, although Morris and her family had suffered harassment, nothing met the threshold of a criminal offense under current Vermont law.
'History of biased policing'
“The Vermont Branches of the NAACP are eager to engage BPD in developing next steps to address the dangerous and unethical culture and behaviors described in the IACP report," Moore said in Friday's statement. "This report is unsurprising considering the history of biased policing in Bennington and the subsequent minimization of community concerns by several town officials.
"We expect the Selectboard to take immediate action to hold Chief Doucette and his staff accountable for their infractions. Likewise, we expect town officials to begin repairing community harm by enacting Recommendation 8 from the report: establish a community advisory committee to the BPD. This step ensures that the community has input into all further recommendations, especially those that involve adopting 21st century policing principles including data-driven initiatives, the development of policies and codes of conduct, and developing training to support officer adherence to bias-free policing practices.”
“All Bennington residents deserve law enforcement that is accountable to the community and that acts in accordance with constitutional standards," Lyall said. "This report describes a troubled and abusive police department, one that remains stuck in the 20th century, ignorant of or indifferent to community policing principles. That ‘warrior mentality’ is why nearly 40% of respondents don’t trust BPD, while fully 20% report experiencing discrimination.
"The fact that town officials continue to downplay these findings and deny that racial bias exists in Bennington’s police department only goes to show how badly a systemwide overhaul is needed. The IACP’s recommendations should be implemented immediately and we support the many Bennington community members who continue to demand systemic reform,” he said.
'Slanted' take on report
Donald Campbell, chair of the select board, called the summary offered by the NAACP and ACLU "slanted." "As [the IACP's] Col. James Baker told us it would, the report 'calls strikes and balls.' There is definite room for improvement and some success already. Read it for yourself — engage in the complexity," he told the Banner Friday.
Campbell said the town's work with the IACP and the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, which acted as a consultant during its request for proposals for the study, are "long-game efforts, both initiated in the wake of a terrible racist episode but aspiring to respond to centuries of racial inequity in America."
The IACP report, he said, "is thoughtful, nuanced, and offers a positive route to making our police department an increasingly effective and compassionate part of the community. We will consider every recommendation deeply, with open minds and optimism."
Hurd faults statements
Town Manager Stuart Hurd on Friday accused Moore and Lyall of "mistat[ing] the facts to pursue their agenda," arguing that the IACP report found no evidence of systemic bias in the BPD's policies or procedures. He added that an analysis of the Bennington PD traffic stops by the Crime Research Group, indirectly referenced in the statement, “'was seriously flawed and its conclusions do not stand up to academic rigor' and for the year analyzed CRG’s analysis 'did not find evidence of disparities' and concluded 'we do not consider their findings and conclusions of racial bias to be conclusive.'”
"Can our Department improve in the area of community policing? Yes. Should the Department’s policies undergo a serious review and updating? Yes, this is already underway," Hurd told the Banner. "Are there community members that feel disenfranchised? Yes. We must address this. The IACP report also found that 60-70% of the community have a positive perception of the Department; believe the officers are responsive; do not feel discriminated against; and trust the Bennington Police Department.
"We all have work to do. It will take time and mutual effort by the community as a whole. Statements that attempt to enflame and divide us are not helpful," he said.
The report finds that "police practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the department, undermining the agency’s law enforcement legitimacy." Of those who participated in the IACP's community survey, 38 percent said they trusted the department "not at all" or "a little." Twelve percent responded "somewhat," and 50 percent said "a lot" or "to a great extent."
In addition to consideration of a civilian advisory or review board, the IACP report recommends a review and update of BPD policies, and greater efforts to involve the community, especially residents who say they distrust the police, in the department's mission.
In an oped published in Friday's Banner, Doucette said the department is open to considering the IACP's recommendations.
"The IACP has done hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar assessments all across this nation. They are able to glean the best ideas from past reports to offer us. Some will fit in Bennington, some may not, but we are will carefully consider each one. Our goal is to improve the Bennington Police Department," he said.
Doucette did not rebut the report's findings directly, but noted that "it does not appear to fully capture much of the great work of the Bennington Police. We take tremendous satisfaction in balancing our community policing efforts with our sworn duty of enforcing laws to protect our residents, businesses and visitors in and around Bennington."
He also noted that the IACP team did not interview all of the community leaders suggested by the BPD, or all of the members of the department.
The IACP team includes James Baker, a former Vermont State Police trooper in the area and later VSP director, who also has served as the Vermont Police Academy director and as police chief in Manchester and in Rutland, and now is interim director of the Vermont Department of Corrections.
The other team members are 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.