BENNINGTON — The Select Board has dismissed several complaints filed by local residents against Bennington police, saying a board review didn't find any criminal, civil or departmental violations. But the board found some of the police techniques concerning and recommended the police department re-evaluate or eliminate them.
At its meeting Wednesday night, the Select Board also publicized video related to the complaints. They included allegations that police have been harassing Bennington resident Joel Fowler, who is Black, by bumping his moving dirt bike with a squad car, issuing him a parking ticket, and telling Fowler's landlord that he is involved in criminal activity.
After reviewing the police department's internal investigation report, along with body camera and dashboard camera video, the Select Board agreed that six of the eight complaints "were unfounded," board member Bruce Lee-Clark said.
In the incident where Fowler got a parking ticket for parking in a fire lane while unloading in front of a laundromat, police video shows Fowler saying that the police were harassing him. His girlfriend, Cassandra Keating, accused police of only ticketing the "Black man." The video shows Keating also had been issued a parking ticket, according to the police report.
Two other complaints we not investigated by the Select Board because they reportedly weren't properly filed. All the incidents took place between April 21 and May 21.
Board members, however, flagged some of the police behavior they saw.
"While the Select Board sitting as the advisory council of citizens found that the complaints did not identify criminal acts or civil wrongs or violations of departmental policy, the board also wishes to express its concerns regarding several of the practices depicted in the complaints filed," Lee-Clark said during the meeting, which was covered live by CAT-TV community television.
These practices, he said, included police speaking to a complainant about a serious matter while a child was present, discussing matters of great concern in a very public location, and proactive contact with landlords regarding prospective tenants.
"The practice of proactive contact with landlords and sharing information not available through a standard Freedom of Information Act request should be discontinued immediately, unless doing so would place an individual in imminent danger," Lee-Clark said. "We request that the department examine its practices and protocols in light of these community expectations and standards."
The BPD report shows Fowler has no criminal history in Vermont, but has a pending case of eluding. The document also lists charges in New York.
When asked if the board's decision to publicize the report and police video was influenced by the current national discussion on racial inequity, and the Black Lives Matter movement, board chair Donald Campbell said: "Absolutely."
The board, he said, is paying close attention to the issues and making sure public officers are aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who oversees the Bennington Police Department, said he is satisfied with the board's findings. He said it's fair to question longstanding police practices, especially with ongoing efforts to implement reforms at the department.
"Times change, and what may have been acceptable in the past may not be acceptable today," Hurd said in an email. "We have undertaken a task that will require deep explorations and hard work by many to help our police department become more welcoming to all peoples, to eliminate the mistrust, and become more focused on the concept of community policing."
Last month, the Select Board hired a consultant to help implement recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which conducted a four-month review to determine if there was any racial bias in the BPD's policies and procedures. The primary focus of the recommendations was on improving community policing methods and addressing the perception of some residents who felt marginalized and believe the police cannot be trusted.
"We accept constructive criticism from the board as well as community members," assistant police chief Lt. Camillo Grande said in an email. "The members of the Bennington Police Department are dedicated professionals serving this community every day and welcome the review ahead of us."
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette couldn't be reached for comment.
Fowler, 30, didn't respond to an interview request sent through his attorney on Friday. His complaints to the BPD were summarized in the police report, but were not made public.
It wasn't immediately clear if he or his girlfriend, Keating, could appeal the Select Board's dismissal of the complaints they filed.
UNPRECEDENTED BOARD ACTION
This is the first time the town Select Board has reviewed the results of the BPD's own investigation of complaints filed against it. Previously, it was Hurd who approved or disapproved of the internal report, which is prepared by the police chief. This time, Hurd forwarded the report to the board.
This is also the first time that both the BPD report, as well as associated body camera and dashboard camera video, have been publicly released, said Hurd, who has been with the town government for more than 40 years.
Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said the board decided on this course of action to promote transparency and trust.
The Vermont State Police Advisory Committee, which the board consulted, had recommended that in "a situation where there are elements of low trust in the community, it's better to be fully transparent and release what you've got," Campbell told the Banner.
Board members' discussions included whether to redact names, concerned that public exposure might discourage some people from lodging complaints. Campbell said this could be an unintended consequence of the board's desire to be transparent.
He said watching the police video would also help community members understand how the board reached its decision to uphold the complaints' dismissal.
Some 20 minutes' worth of police video was broadcast during the Select Board meeting Wednesday night. The only alterations the board decided to make were to bleep expletives and to conceal the face of a minor who appears in the footage.