The Bennington Police Department on South Street.

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Bruce Lee-Clark and Jeannie Jenkins

As our community came together last August to discuss a vision for Bennington, the full range of thoughts and feelings were shared — primary among them were skepticism, hope, anger, and impatience.

In the hot pandemic summer, we sat in a noisy firehouse and at home on Zoom and challenged each other to talk about what it would take for our community to move forward to a more inclusive and welcoming future. The conversation was hard specifically because it included perspectives from those who benefit and those who know and live the daily harm resulting from the status quo.

Bennington is entering into another hard conversation this summer. The next step in achieving Bennington’s vision is up to us all. The Select Board’s Community Policing work group recently put forward a proposal for a community taskforce to recommend a structure for a Safety and Equity Board that will guide and hold accountable our police department and community. The full proposal can be found at https://benningtonvt.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Safety-and-Equity-Board-Proposal.pdf

We propose that the taskforce work together over several months to recommend a board structure that will have policy, training, data analysis and oversight functions all in one entity. This integrated structure, rather than creating separate compartments of work, will allow our community to approach problems and solutions in a more holistic and collaborative way. We must keep talking to each other to get this right.

Yes, it is complicated. It involves thinking about the role of the police, local organizations and the broader community. How do we ensure inclusiveness in decision making? What is the role of the community in safety? What role should the police department play? How are new systems created while institutional barriers remain? What is the right mix of being proactive and demanding accountability? How can we assure our community that change is real?

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All of this is dependent on our building trust, transparency, and accountability to each other and in our institutions. It also requires individuals to be willing to speak up and a community willing to listen.

Change is difficult. It requires hard work, time, and a willingness to hear a range of opinions. It is the right and necessary thing for us to be doing. We aren’t shying away from the work, and to be successful, we need the engagement of the full community. The community has been part of the process every step of the way: researching community policing and police oversight models, creating a Town vision and a Police Department mission, providing comments on the Town-wide discussion boards, taking part in the Police Policy Advisory Boards and providing input on Policing procedures. Now we need your active engagement in this next step to create a Town Safety and Equity Board.

Bennington is fortunate to have ongoing support from some key state and national organizations beginning with the assessment and recommendations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the training and facilitation provided by the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity (VPFD), and most recently, the involvement of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE). These organizations and others have been and will continue to provide advice, connections, and resources to our community.

It certainly would be possible for the Select Board to simply create a Safety and Equity Board, as some have suggested we do. However, the organizations and representatives from the cities and towns we have worked with over the past year and a half have convinced us of the importance of involving the community every step of the way.

The vision we crafted last August, “Bennington is a welcoming, engaged, inclusive, and resilient community where everyone, regardless of identity, shares in our vitality and benefits from an outstanding quality of life” is a daily reality check on the work we need to do to be the community we want to be.

We encourage everyone to take part in this next step toward achieving our vision. The comment period on the proposal is open through June 4. Please send us an email at jjenkins@benningtonvt.org, jconner@benningtonvt.org, and bleeclark@benningtonvt.org, with your thoughts, dreams and concerns so that Bennington’s future is created by all of us.

Jeanne Conner, Bruce Lee-Clark and Jeannie Jenkins are members of the Bennington Select Board Community Policing Work Group.


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