BENNINGTON — Former state Rep. Kiah Morris said Tuesday that a change in leadership at the town manager’s office and Bennington Police Department are necessary to bring about systemic change in town — among her first public remarks after her family settled with the town over a discrimination-related BPD complaint.
Morris, her husband and their son filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission in 2019, alleging that Bennington police failed to adequately investigate racially motivated harassment against their family because of their race and color. Morris, who is African American, mentioned the harassment when she announced her resignation as a Bennington state representative in 2018.
As part of the family’s settlement with Bennington, the town Select Board has apologized “for the harms and trauma they encountered while residing in Bennington.” The board also acknowledged that they “felt unsafe and unprotected” — wording which was laid out in the agreement.
But, Morris said in a news conference Tuesday: “No changes in staffing or penalties for the town manager or the chief of police has emerged from this experience, which my family feels is necessary to begin on a meaningful path toward real change in Bennington.”
The HRC investigator earlier recommended that the rights commission “find reasonable grounds” to believe that Bennington discriminated against Morris, her husband James Lawton and their minor son, according to the March 3 report.
The town issued a response April 9, asking the commission not to accept the recommendation. It said that while Morris has “undoubtedly been the target of abhorrent racist online harassment carried out by at least one known bigoted individual in the town” — naming self-described white nationalist Max Misch — there is “no basis” that the BPD discriminated against her on the basis of race and color.
Morris, her family and the town reached a settlement agreement before the HRC’s five commissioners could vote on whether to accept the recommendation. Their complaint has been withdrawn, ending any administrative proceedings or court litigation on the matter, said Morris’ lawyer, Robert Appel.
Morris told reporters Tuesday that her family decided to settle after the town said it was ready to take steps forward. Their settlement agreement, first discussed in a Select Board meeting in April, shows that Bennington also will pay the family $137,500, continue working on an oversight body for the police department and provide rent-free space to Vermont Legal Aid of similar group for at least five years.
CALLS FOR LEADERSHIP CHANGE
When asked if the settlement negotiations involved talks of leadership change that Morris is advocating, Appel said the agreement prohibits them from discussing these details. “I will say that the opinions expressed today have been expressed to the town, not only by Kiah and her family but by other members of the community,” the attorney said.
Mia Schultz, a Bennington resident and president of the Rutland Area NAACP, echoed the call for new leaders, in order to achieve accountability. She said changes in policy won’t be enough to address the town’s problem of systemic racism, because the policies will be approved and implemented by the same people.
“What we need is to change the narrative and change the people,” Schultz said, “because we don’t have any trust in them anymore.”
Jeannie Jenkins, chairwoman of the Bennington Select Board, said in an interview Tuesday that she disagrees with the view that Town Manager Stuart Hurd and BPD Chief Paul Doucette should be replaced. (Doucette is accountable to Hurd, who is in turn appointed by the Select Board.)
Jenkins said the town is a year and a half into a community effort to rethink how it understands public safety and equity, and that the BPD leadership has shown willingness to evolve through this process. “The police department has been an eager participant in the training and coaching,” she said.
When asked for comment, Hurd said he will continue to work for the town until the board decides it no longer wants him, or he retires. As for the BPD, he said the police department has “fine leadership.”
Doucette didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
DISTRUST OF POLICE
Meanwhile, Morris said the BPD’s ineffective response to her family’s calls for assistance has diminished her view of them. “I distrust law enforcement,” she said, “and I’ve lost confidence in that institution and its representatives to act with integrity.”
Morris’ husband mirrored her sentiments. In a statement read by Morris, Lawton said the potential harm to their family from national and local white supremacists as well as “bad actors” in Bennington were compounded by “weak, ineffective and poor investigations at both the state and local level.”
Lawton, who wasn’t present at the news conference, said the involvement of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan’s office in the investigation had been disappointing. He said the AG Office’s efforts turned out to only be “the least amount necessary to keep up appearances to the rest of the state.”
Following an investigation by state police and computer forensics personnel, Donovan issued a report in 2018 that said Morris was a “victim of racial harassment.” But he said there was not sufficient evidence of criminal behavior. That also had been the conclusion of the Bennington Police Department and the Bennington County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Donovan’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment as of press time.
Morris, who has moved to the Burlington area with her family, said she doesn’t feel safe returning to Bennington to this day.