BPD OVERSIGHT

A proposal to form a task force to create a police oversight board in Bennington came in for some heavy criticism during a Select Board meeting Monday.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

BENNINGTON — Officials of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont have delivered some blistering criticism of a proposal by a citizen task force to create a police oversight board, faulting the board’s makeup and lack of authority, among other issues.

In an email sent before the Select Board’s Monday meeting, Mia Schultz, of Bennington, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, and Jay Diaz, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Vermont, ripped the idea of forming a committee to create an oversight board format with diverse representation.

Schultz later called into the board’s meeting and read the joint statement.

“The community has a clear choice: to create a meaningful police accountability mechanism to ensure its policing procedures and practices accord with civil liberties and civil rights (at a minimum), or to continue supporting the biased, divisive, and harmful policing actions that have plagued the town for many years,” the rights organization officials said.

They added that “the proposed task force is deeply flawed, including the lack of meaningful charge or stakeholder inclusion. For these reasons, among others, we oppose the proposal as crafted. After reviewing the current proposal, our organizations question the commitment of Bennington’s current leadership to establishing a genuine system of police accountability.”

A draft of the proposal was posted two weeks ago and posted on the town’s website, seeking comments from the public. The board gave the plan a first reading on Monday, and Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins said the comment period is continuing.

“This is the kind of input we wanted,” she said Monday. “We continue to accept comments.”

TASK FORCE ‘UNNECESSARY’

Schultz and Diaz stated, “While we recognize the value of gathering input from a variety of sources, the Select Board cannot delegate its responsibility to create a police accountability board to a group of volunteers and police officers. In addition, the Select Board has already examined police oversight models and acted as an interim oversight body for the last year. Creating a volunteer task force to re-examine the issues yet again is unnecessary.”

According to the draft proposal, an 11-member committee would be formed and begin work in August with the goal of proposing a format for a police oversight board by May 2022.

The proposal as posted includes “a process for the creation and deliberation of a taskforce comprised of up to 11 community members including representation from individuals with the following areas of expertise and/or experience: mental health, K-12 education, lived experience, law enforcement, law, the BIPOC community, business, recent high school/college grad; domestic violence, interfaith, disabilities, LGBTQ people, and migrant labor.”

The oversight initiative comes amid an ongoing review of Bennington Police Department policies and procedures. Such a review was recommended in a 2020 report from an International Association of Chiefs of Police consulting team, which had studied the BPD’s procedures.

DELAY ‘UNACCEPTABLE’

“Further delay in establishing actual civilian oversight, as envisioned in the proposed task force timeline, is unacceptable,” Schultz and Diaz stated. “It has already been over a year since the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended the creation of a civilian oversight board. Leaving that recommendation unfulfilled for another year evinces a troubling lack of urgency to address the serious civil liberties and civil rights violations committed by Bennington’s police department.”

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

They added, “The proposed task force is already an outgrowth of the Select Board’s ‘community policing’ work group. The Select Board should survey the multitude of available oversight models and move swiftly to create a community control of policing board with meaningful oversight authority.”

The organization leaders say that “community member concerns and public findings related to Bennington police tactics have repeatedly described racially-biased and willfully harmful practices. Racial disparities in Bennington traffic stop data continue unabated. The Select Board has heard from townspeople advocating for civilian control and police oversight models on numerous occasions. Ample information on how to create a meaningful oversight body is readily available from the National Organization for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), among other organizations.”

The town’s draft proposal to create a town oversight board recommends contracting with NOCOLE for assistance.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Also sent to the Select Board was a review of necessary oversight powers developed by the ACLU of Vermont, and a memorandum from the city attorney of Burlington, which also recently conducted a survey of oversight models.

The ACLU-VT recommendations say that an “oversight requires a community board to have, at a minimum, subpoena power, independence, funding, diverse membership, transparency, and policymaking authority. None of these are required by or even discussed in the current [Bennington] proposal.”

The statement also criticized the proposed make-up and other aspects of the task force to create an oversight board.

“The requirement that each task force member receive 7.5 hours of ‘criminal justice training,’ before doing any actual task force work, will make it difficult for the most impacted, such as the economically marginalized and homeless, to participate,” the rights officials stated.

“Furthermore, as envisioned, the task force includes 13 vague categories of people,” they said. “At the outset, the inclusion of anyone with law enforcement experience on a task force meant to create a police accountability board is likely to create a conflict of interest that will weaken accountability proposals. Most importantly, the explicit inclusion of one BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] community member on the board is tokenism at its worst.”

Select Board member Bruce Lee-Clark responded during the meeting that it was expected the task force categories would in fact lead to the appointment of several BIPOC members who represent other categories as well.

Board members also said they have found having a police officer on the several BPD policy review task force groups has proved a valuable resource.

Officer Daniel Ferrara has served on each group, as have members of the Select Board’s community policing working group, which is coordinating the citizen task force reviews and policy revisions.

Jenkins, Lee-Clark and Jeanne Conner serve on that working group.

Lee-Clark, Assistant Town Manager Daniel Monks and Ferrara are permanent members of each policy review task force, which also include four community members.

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three Vermont News and Media newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield Republican, and the former North Adams Transcript.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us.
We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.