When considering the study of the Bennington Police Department conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, it's important to remember why the review was undertaken in the first place: "to determine whether there was evidence of policies, procedures, or operational practices within the police department that created opportunities for unfair, discriminatory, or biased policing activities."
The study, which came about as part of the fallout from investigations into the racial harassment of former state Rep. Kiah Morris, an African-American, sought to evaluate the department's relationship with the community and whether there is real or perceived racial bias within the department. It was recommended by state Attorney General T.J. Donovan, after Donovan determined that no criminal charges could be filed against Morris' tormenters under current Vermont law.
The results, which every Bennington adult resident should read, made 25 recommendations aimed at addressing and correcting community mistrust in the department. They were released last week.
While some feel the study didn't go far enough in identifying systemic racial bias in the department, its findings made quite clear that the department has work to do in building relationships and restoring trust. "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 report said.
The report also said this: "Many residents genuinely embrace the Bennington Police Department and want to be a more inclusive and united community."
Those two statements are not mutually exclusive.
Bennington is at its very best when it is a place where all are welcomed and valued for their unique talents and perspectives. It is true that law enforcement is not a popularity contest. But it is harmful to the community as a whole if a significant portion mistrusts the police department, and believes it is being treated as second-class citizens. That doesn't help the police or the community.
A virtual Select Board meeting on the report is scheduled for Monday, and we urge all who can to tune in and take part. Bennington's government, which includes its police department, is a reflection of the community it represents and the values we all share. It's important for our community to assure those values are heard and understood, and participating in this process is the best way to assure the results moving forward are what Bennington wants and needs.
There has already been criticism of the study, and of the police department, in the wake of its release. That's not unexpected. But the process of building trust starts with listening. To that point, it's vitally important that Bennington residents listen carefully to each other in the days and weeks ahead, resist the temptation to take sides, and work together towards making this the best community it can be for all who call it home.