BENNINGTON — The Community Policing Work Group of the Bennington Select Board has released a draft proposal for a new town board to allow community involvement in decision-making concerning public safety and equity issues.
Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins and other work group members said in a release that the public is encouraged to contact her at email@example.com with comments, and/or share comments during the Select Board meeting on May 24, when the proposal will be given a first reading.
The other members of the Select Board work group on policing issues are Jeanne Conner and Bruce Lee-Clark.
The effort will be facilitated by staff from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a non-profit organization that helps individuals and agencies establish or improve oversight of police officers in the United States. “NACOLE welcomes people and organizations committed to fair and professional law enforcement that is responsive to community needs,” the group says on its website, https://www.nacole.org/.
Reached Thursday evening by email, Jenkins said, “The Community Policing Working Group developed the proposal. NACOLE was recommended to us early on by both the IACP [International Association of Chiefs of Police] and by the Civil Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office as an excellent resource. They have been willing to talk with us, share their resources and connect us with communities that have worked with them in the past — all because they are passionate about policing transformation.”
She added, “The Working Group is proposing that we work with NACOLE on a contractual basis as a facilitator, particularly on the Oversight or Complaint Review function, of this new town board ... The full Select Board is just seeing this proposal along with the community. We look forward to having a full discussion at the next meeting on May 24.”
Lee-Clark said in a phone message that the proposal “is the next step in a community engagement, it seems to me, that is seeking to bridge gaps between the policing community and the broader community.”
The oversight initiative comes amid an ongoing review of Bennington Police Department policies and procedures, which was recommended in a report last year from an IACP consulting team that had studied the BPD’s procedures over a four-month period. Consideration of a police oversight or advisory group was also a recommendation of the IACP team, and of both the Vermont ACLU and the Rutland area chapter of the NAACP.
Officials with those rights organizations could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
The IACP was called in as a consultant to determine whether there was any racial bias in the policies and procedures of the Bennington Police Department. The report found that “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.”
SAFETY AND EQUITY
Town officials said the goal is to create a structure for a town board to provide “meaningful community involvement in safety and equity decision-making.” That would likely include recommendations on police department training and community collaboration efforts; review of complaints against the BPD; development and review of proposed critical BPD policies and procedures; and analysis of public safety and equity data.
The release states that “The purpose of the board is to ensure safety, accountability, transparency and trust in the community and to move Bennington toward achieving its vision of becoming ‘a welcoming, engaged, inclusive, and resilient community where everyone, regardless of identity, shares in our vitality and benefits from an outstanding quality of life.’”
The draft proposal 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 taskforce will be an official committee of the town with a charge not to exceed six months, according to the release, and will abide by appropriate processes and procedures of governmental bodies, including open meeting law, agenda setting, recording of minutes, and other requirements as determined.
“The work of the Community Safety and Equity Board (working title) is to ensure safety, accountability, transparency and trust in the community and to move Bennington toward achieving its vision of becoming ‘a welcoming, engaged, inclusive, and resilient community where everyone, regardless of identity, shares in our vitality and benefits from an outstanding quality of life,” the release states.
“We propose a two-part process: 1. Create a taskforce to explore the name, charge, membership, structure, and scope of a safety and equity board and 2. Establish a safety and equity board,” according to the release.
The taskforce members, according to the release, will be required to “complete 7.5 hours of criminal justice training. The training will consist of three 2.5-hour sessions. The first two sessions will provide an overview of the criminal justice system including goals, agencies and institutions. The third session will be conducted by the Bennington Police Department and focus on the current day-to-day activities and roles of staff, including officers, investigators, and dispatchers within the department; an overview of policy and procedures; and existing collaborations with local programs.”
A town staff person will be assigned to assist the taskforce, which will elect two co-chairs to set the agenda, run the meetings, and assure compliance with all requirements of an official board. The taskforce is expected to complete this work within a four-month timeframe.
SELECT BOARD REVIEW
At the completion of the committee’s work, a written record of recommendations will be forwarded to the Select Board.
Recommendations of the taskforce will be shared at a warned Select Board meeting at the earliest convenience of the taskforce and the Select Board.
There will be a formal comment period on the recommendations of no less than 10 days.
The Select Board will then review the recommendations and public comments in determining the name, scope, structure, membership and responsibilities of a community safety and equity board.
Finally, the Select Board will create a safety and equity board to be part of the town’s Boards and Commissions to be established and have membership terms that coincide with other town board and commission appointments.
A proposed timetable for the process included with the release suggests an August launch and establishment of the Safety and Equity Board by May 2022.