Our opinion: 5 first steps from the Bennington police study

HOLLY PELCZYNSKI - BENNINGTON BANNER Officer Amanda Knox and Officer Michael Pierce stop vehicles for drivers using their cell phones while driving during the beginning of the Cell Phone Campaign which tickets drivers for having a cell phone in your hands or touching your ear.

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The Vermont chapters of the ALCU and NAACP, in reacting to the International Association of Chiefs of Police study of the Bennington Police Department, have endorsed the creation of a community advisory committee to help the department adopt the study's findings and develop "policies and codes of conduct, and developing training to support officer adherence to bias-free policing practices."

"Over time, Bennington's police practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the department, undermining the agency's law enforcement legitimacy," the study said.

Partnering with the community to rebuild that trust is essential, for the sake of the department and all of Bennington. The department's officers work hard at a high-stress job. Community involvement, together with a concerted effort to repair the erosion, can only help those officers carry out their important work.

Appointing that committee should be a starting point for the Bennington Select Board, and getting this first step right is critical. The committee should represent communities that have come to mistrust the department, as well as the department's management team and other community stakeholders. To operate effectively, its members must be honest with each other and listen closely to each others' needs and perspectives. That's a challenging task, but accomplishing that goal will benefit all of Bennington.

Here are four more recommendations from the study that we believe should be implemented.

- Create a clear mission statement, vision statement, and shared values statement. Successful organizations have a strong culture, in which expectations and shared values are clear. Setting standards and making them highly visible should be one of the community advisory committee's first tasks. That will assure that the overarching goal — restoring trust among segments of the community where trust has been lost — remains in the forefront as the department moves forward.

- Make better use of data. "Bennington was unable to provide full and detailed data, policies, and vision and mission statements that clearly address bias-free practices; economic or past criminal record(s); and gender, sexual preferences, or racial disparities, which suggests that data collection, analysis, and dissemination processes need to be examined," the report states.

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That is a significant shortcoming and it must be fixed, quickly. Clear policies and smart use of data can only help the department set clear expectations, and avoid or address real or perceived bias. Reporting that data on a regular basis is also a necessity.

- Refine and rethink traffic enforcement. One of the biggest surprises in the study was the revelation that the Bennington Police Department averaged more than 6,000 vehicle stops a year between 2017 and 2019. That's half the adult population of Bennington getting pulled over, every year.

Despite the fact that the traffic stop data does not suggest officers are racially profiling motorists, the study made clear that reliance on traffic stops as a law enforcement tool "is a source of fear for many community members who feel and understand that routine traffic stops have historically been used as methods of intimidation toward racial minorities."

To that end, the department should adopt recommendations which prescribe collection and careful use of data, bias training and policies that allow officers more discretion on traffic stops. The use of more precise, data-driven "hotspot policing" is also welcome.

- Prioritize community policing. The department does have a community policing initiative, and it does great work. But the report makes clear that community policing should be a larger part of the department's culture — particularly in de-emphasizing a "warrior mentality" in favor of a "guardian mentality," in which officers spend more time building relationships and trust. To that end, recommendations promoting and emphasizing community policing should be adopted.

- Transparency builds trust. A number of recommendations center on improving clear communication with the community, from the department website and use of social media channels to making it easier for residents to interact with the department. These can only help the department communicate how it is fulfilling its new mission and vision statements. They should be put into place quickly.


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