BENNINGTON — The Select Board has unanimously approved a settlement agreement concerning a complaint to the Human Rights Commission from former state Rep. Kiah Morris, her husband, James Lawton, and their son.
The settlement, which requires the town to pay the family $137,000 and issue a public apology, was in relation to Morris’ complaints that Bennington Police did not adequately investigate online and other racially motivated harassment prior to her decision to leave the Legislature amid a campaign for re-election in 2018.
The family has since sold their home on Morgan Street and moved to the Burlington area.
The Human Rights Commission has been investigating the family’s complaints against the BPD. No investigative report has been released by the commission, but Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins indicated that the parties will be able to comment publicly about the report at some point, once the settlement — reached through mediation — is signed by all the parties involved.
She announced the settlement following a board executive session, prior to the vote to accept it.
A public apology to Morris and her family, another aspect of the agreement, was then read by Jenkins, who said in part:
“No one in Bennington should feel unsafe or unprotected. We have listened to Kiah Morris, James Lawton and their family in mediation. It is clear that Kiah, James and their family felt unsafe and unprotected by the town of Bennington. We have to do better by all persons who live in, work in or travel through the town of Bennington irrespective of color, race, religion and other categories as protected by the law.”
Jenkins added that the town “apologizes to Kiah Morris, James Lawton and their family for the harms and trauma they encountered while residing in Bennington, and we fully acknowledge this reality. We pledge to learn, to do better and to protect all of our citizens.”
Jenkins said that the parties had agreed in mediation to releasing the town and others from liability for legal action from all claims that have or might arise in the matter.
The agreement becomes official and the town will release the funds after the parties all sign it and the complaint is withdrawn, which is expected by Friday according to the settlement, Jenkins said.
She said the final resolution requires that all claims be dismissed with prejudice, and that no lawsuit shall be filed related to claims.
Each side will pay its own attorney fees, she said, but the parties will retain the right to discuss the HRC investigative report related to the claims when it is released.
The agreement requires a general release from liability/hold harmless provision for the town, its employees and agents, Jenkins said, and the agreement specifies that it “shall not be deemed an admission of liability or the strength or weakness of any claims, and that the claim is being settled to avoid expensive and protracted litigation.”
“The Select Board has voted to accept the settlement,” Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Thursday. “The other party must withdraw the complaint as part of the settlement. The [commission] must agree. The complaint has been investigated so the HRC is no longer looking into the complaint. Beyond that, we await the final withdrawal decision.”
In answer to a question, he said that no disciplinary action has been taken against Police Chief Paul Doucette or others in the police department relative to the complaints or the settlement.
Asked Thursday if the family intends to sign the agreement, Lawton said that at this point, they are issuing a written statement but wouldn’t be commenting further.
He said in a text message, “We feel a statement is premature as it is not a finalized settlement.”
Commenting on the agreement, NAACP official Mia Schultz, of Bennington, said, “It is not enough. The settlement amount is not enough. The apology was weak and insincere at best. Once again there is no accountability for the systemic racism that is overwhelmingly present in the police department, the select board and the town manager.”
She added, “Since I have moved here, I have witnessed this town pay out thousands of dollars in lawsuits for racism. There is also another pending case as well that is being investigated by the HRC. As the Rutland Area NAACP president that also includes Bennington, I also have complaints against this town and police to address. So the question is, how many times will this town be sued for racism before they actually see that there is a problem in this community and that it starts at the top?”
The settlement also requires Bennington to continue with an ongoing review and reform of BPD policies and procedures, including consideration of a police advisory or oversight body for the department, and with involvement by the public.
The review of BPD policies was a recommendation of consultants from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who were hired by the board in 2019 to do a four-month review of the town department.
And the town agreed to provide office space for Vermont Legal Aid or another group providing pro bono legal representation for at least five years, the terms to be negotiated, Jenkins said. No rent would be due but the town could recoup utility and other costs.
In addition to the current settlement agreement, the town in 2020 settled a lawsuit by an African American man who was stopped on Main Street in 2013 and arrested on drug charges, only to have the Vermont Supreme Court overturn his conviction saying the traffic stop was improperly extended.
The town’s insurer paid $30,000 as part of that settlement agreement.
And the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont has filed a complaint with the HRC on behalf of a biracial couple alleging racially motivated targeting and harassment by Bennington police. The complaint alleged multiple tickets issued to Joel Fowler, who is Black.
Fowler and his girlfriend, Cassandra Keating, have accused the Select Board of retaliating against them for filing complaints against the BPD by publicizing their names and private information about them. The HRC has agreed to investigate their complaint.