BENNINGTON — Town and police officials said they were encouraged by the Bennington Police Department’s first participation in the National Night Out program, which promotes community events that bring officers and residents together under positive circumstances.
The BPD hosted and personally served up a free picnic Tuesday evening at Willow Park, offering hot dogs, ice cream, cotton candy and other party fare, along with rides for kids in the department’s Humvee.
“I think it’s a really good turnout,” said Lt. Camillo Grande, as he turned hot dogs on a grill near the Lower Willow pavilion. “It’s great to see all these people. I’m very happy with it.”
After about 45 minutes into the two-hour event, Grande said about 300 hot dogs had been handed out.
Speaking of the Night Out program, Chief Paul Doucette said, “We’ve been looking at this since last year, but we didn’t have time to put it together because of COVID.”
This year, he said, the department and youth participants in the BPD’s New Experience Camp program, which is running this week, planned and set up the community picnic.
“I think it’s gone extremely well,” Doucette said. “We originally planned for 200, but then we said we better do 300, and we’re close to having given out 300 hot dogs so far, and we’ve got all sorts of great stuff going on.”
The Bennington Fire Department also participated, providing a ladder truck that shot a fountain of water skyward to fall in a spot on the field below, attracting numerous children to dance through the falling spray.
Children also lined up for rides around the slopes of Lower Willow field in the department’s Humvee, which was acquired at no cost in 2011 as a military surplus vehicle. Youth Wiffle ball, kick ball, dodge ball and corn hole games also kept kids busy.
Of the department’s efforts to engage with the community other than as police officers, Doucette said he believes Night Out events are “an excellent way to do it.”
He added, “You know, advertising it, getting the community out; a little music, some popcorn, some hot dogs; getting people to see what we do as the town of Bennington. Not just the Police Department, but the Fire Department and the Department of Public Works, and getting people to interact with representatives from all those agencies.”
The department, town leaders and citizen volunteers have been involved in a Police Department review that was recommended in a consultant’s report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police that the Select Board commissioned and received in April 2020. The report recommended a review of BPD policies and procedures, which is ongoing with citizen-town task force groups, and also consideration of a standing civilian review board for the department.
A survey of residents conducted by the association during its review of the BPD found that a significant percentage of those who responded did not trust the local police or had a low level of trust.
The report stated in part: “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.”
The town currently is seeking volunteers for a citizen group to recommend a format for a civilian police review board. Information on that effort, which has an Aug. 20 deadline for volunteering, and other town policing review activities can be found on the town website on a Community Policing page.
Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins, one of several board members and other town officials who attended the picnic, said it was organized by the BPD and is the type of event that can foster communication between those who enforce the law and the general public.
“This is new for them,” she said, “and for most departments” in those communities discussing policing reforms.
During the policy review process, “they have been willing partners in this,” Jenkins added.
That includes in seeking out additional officer training options, beyond the sessions that were adopted as part of the response to the association’s recommendations.
Acknowledging criticism the review and reform process has sometimes received, Jenkins said, “We want people to engage, not just critique it [after decisions are made]. And we want it make this open to everyone and open to new ideas.”
The town “is still in the middle of many things,” Jenkins said of the reform efforts. But she said most of the 14 initial BPD policy reviews and revisions are now complete, and the important work of creating a standing police review board is scheduled to begin in September.
“I feel that we are working at a pace that works for the community,” she said, adding that the hope is the positive effects of policing reform efforts will become evident as the process enters the next phase.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who oversees the Police Department, said he has heard a mostly positive response to the town’s policing reform and outreach efforts.
“Events like this, where police can interact with the community in a way that is user-friendly, and not from the other perspective; I think that really helps,” Hurd said.
“We pulled this together rather quickly; I give our department a lot of credit,” he said.
As for the reform process, Hurd said, “I think the community is watching it happen, and we probably will make a decision at some point in the future. We’re really into a policy process, but I think that when the [civilian review] task force gets appointed, and they start talking about next steps, then I think we’ll hear more from the community.”
According to National Night Out website, Bennington is the ninth Vermont community to hold annual Night Out events. Also holding Night Out events on Tuesday were departments in Pittsfield, North Adams, Adams and Williamstown in Berkshire County, Mass.
Events held across the country through the program, which began in 1984, include block parties, festivals, parades, cookouts and various other community events, including safety demonstrations, seminars, youth events, visits from emergency personnel and exhibits.
The BPD is expected to continue with the program in August 2022 with a goal of expanding the local event.