Team releases Bennington police study report

The entrance of the Bennington Police Department offices on South Street. A 55-page report from consultants who reviewed the department's policies and procedures has been released. It was presented on CAT-TV Monday and can be viewed on the cable network's website or Facebook page, or through the town's website. Questions and comments are being sought from the public.

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BENNINGTON — The consulting team that studied Bennington Police Department policies and procedures has issued a series of recommendations to the town, including a review and update of BPD policies, consideration of a civilian advisory or review board, and greater efforts to involve the community, especially residents who say they distrust the police, in the department's mission.

The four-person team from the International Association of Chiefs of Police gave a presentation on their findings and the 55-page report Monday evening in a recorded program shown on the local cable network, CAT-TV.

The presentation will be made available for viewing through the CAT-TV website and its Facebook page, with a link provided on the town's website.

The public will now have an opportunity to comment or ask questions of the team in advance of a virtual meeting May 4 with the Select Board, which will include an opportunity to call in during the discussion.

Questions can be emailed to the IACP team at BenningtonVT@theIACP.org.

Risk of bias

Referring to the question of racial bias within the department, which was the impetus behind the study commissioned by the board last fall, the report states in part: "The existing [BPD] 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."

The review was suggested by Attorney General TJ Donovan in the wake of former Bennington state Rep. Kiah Morris' decision in 2018 to end her re-election campaign. 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 Select Board hired the IACP in August, and the review included visits to Bennington to gather input from residents, groups and organizations, and meetings with BPD officers and local officials.

The team also gathered comments from residents and groups and collected survey responses, including in ways designed to protect the identity of those registering complaints.

"It is important that BPD's policy reflect the values of the organization as well as the community," the report states. "The danger in enacting policy in a police department without taking input from the community is that the policy could have a disparate impact on certain parts of the community, often those parts of the community that are the most disenfranchised."

Civilian involvement

Among the 25 recommendations are that the town consider a police advisory group or civilian review commission, or a new position of liaison to the community and local groups.

Survey results in the report found that about 30 percent of those responding did not trust the department in at least some situations.

Police Chief Paul Doucette, who along with his leadership team with met Monday morning to review the report with the IACP team, said he wants to hear comments from others concerning an advisory board or commission, but he believes regular public meetings to discuss police activities and procedures are something he would like to implement regardless.

"I would love to have quarterly meetings, or every six months, with the community, to let people know what we are working on," he said.

Doucette said he is looking forward to meeting with the Select Board and the community to talk about recommendations in the report, adding that he has begun implementing policy and other changes, based in part on discussions with the IACP team about best practices for law enforcement agencies nationally.

"I don't think anybody is perfect," he added. "We want to improve."

While Doucette said having about 70 percent of those surveyed holding generally favorable views of the BPD, which he called "a C average," he wants to boost that figure "to more like a B or a B-plus" among residents.

Police updates

Among the policy updates or new policies recommended are those concerning the identification and investigation of hate crimes.

"The BPD does not have a policy on the identification and investigation of hate crimes," the report states. "The issue of hate crimes is not solely associated with race, but the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation of any person."

The department has adopted a model policy associated with the state's Act 56 [concerning officer training], which "mandates very clear expectations of police agencies in receiving, investigating, and adjudicating complaints made against police officers," the report states, adding, "BPD, in adopting the model policy, has addressed all of the legislative concerns, except the piece on citizen oversight or review."

The study team found that "while the department has implemented some community policing strategies, for the most part, the operational and organizational focus lies with traffic enforcement and reactive policing strategies. As a result, BPD is missing important opportunities to move toward policing strategies that embrace community engagement and community policing."

The report added, "Some members of the community feel disengaged from the Bennington Police Department and this has resulted in some members of the community experiencing fear, a sense of disconnectedness, and in some cases, contempt for the department. However, the project team observed a willingness of the community to re-engage and to collaborate with BPD in community policing as a guiding principle and philosophy, and it appears BPD, in many ways, also has the will and ability to move toward contemporary policing for this century."

Traffic stops

Traffic enforcement "is clearly a priority for the Bennington Police Department," the report states, "and it is, in the project team's estimation, the most comprehensive policy on record in terms of operating procedures. However, it is also the project team's belief that the policy is too prescriptive and limits the reasonable and appropriate use of officer discretion once the stop is initiated, unintentionally creating a negative impact on community-police relationships. It should be emphasized, however, that as BPD supports the appropriate and responsible use of discretion, that they provide sufficient training to officers to manage discretion, particularly around traffic enforcement."

The focus on traffic stops by BPD as a strategy to locate criminal activity and reduce vehicle crashes has reduced the number of serious accidents, the report states, but it "is a source of fear for many community members who feel and understand that routine traffic stops have historically been used as methods of intimidation toward racial minorities."

Also recommended is that the BPD "immediately develop a new mission statement, vision statement, and shared values statement. Create these documents by engaging both internal and external stakeholders. These statements should be known by every member of the department and posted in locations that are visible to members on a daily basis. The statements should be prominently displayed on the BPD webpage."

Information on department policies and procedures and on how to file either complaints compliments with the BPD also should be publicly posted, as on the department website, the report states.

This is a change Doucette said is underway as part of a redesign of the department site.

Select Board member Bruce Lee-Clark, who retired in 2018 as a pre-law instructor with the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center, said he believes transparency concerning policies and activities of the department would reduce the negative perceptions among some residents.

"There has to be a much more open way to make both compliments and complaints to the PD," he said.

Some type of police advisory board might make sense, he said, but those decisions should come after more input from the community and other officials. "The devil is always in the details," he said.

"I am looking forward to seeing how the community reacts," Lee-Clark said of the report.

He also noted that the report cites a lack of sufficient data on traffic stop outcomes and other policing activities that is needed in setting or updating policies.

He said his sense is that the positive perceptions of the department likely depend on "the degree to which these things are transparent and open."

"Ultimately, I consider the report to be positive," said Town Manager Stuart Hurd. "It found that our policies do not encourage racism," but that some policies are long overdue for an update as law enforcement has entered an era emphasizing community policing methods.

"I can tell you that the chief is already updating policies, and he took this to heart," Hurd said.

He said he thinks the first priority for the town should be to update all police policies, followed by consideration of expanding community involvement or establishing a system allowing community review or oversight.

Select Board review

Contacted Monday night, Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said of the presentation, "The IACP report offers us an excellent roadmap to developing fair and compassionate community policing in Bennington. Although the report concludes that there is currently no racial bias in traffic stops or policies, it vividly warns of the very real danger these threats pose to all communities like ours."

He added that "national data shows that race too often is a factor in police enforcement and this is something our community must actively guard against. At some level, IACP has given us an opportunity to address a common policing problem seemingly before we have it."

The Select Board "will spend the next few weeks reading and absorbing IACP's thought-provoking report," Campbell said. "Shortly after that we will begin evaluating their recommendations with an eye towards implementation."

The IACP report concludes by saying, "There is enormous potential for the Bennington Police Department to be successful and that with work and dedication, they can earn the trust of the entire community they serve. At the same time, current and future leadership of BPD may need some guidance as they strategically and deliberately move toward 21st century policing Most important, BPD should avoid further separating vulnerable elements of the community from the police. BPD can engage in decision-making that is attentive to procedural justice, is transparent and fair to the community, and avoids further disenfranchisement of members of the Bennington community that make this part of Vermont a unique and special place to call home."

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.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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