Select Board takes up Bennington police review report

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BENNINGTON — The Select Board on Monday dug into the process by which members will consider a consultant's review of Bennington Police Department policies and procedures.

The idea of forming a police advisory board or commission received universal support, and no one on the board expressed opposition to any of the 25 recommendations offered last month by a team from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Board members took no votes Monday but discussed the options for moving forward in reviewing the recommendations for possible implementation. A key component, board members agreed, will be involving the community — especially those residents who said in a survey they don't trust the BPD or feel marginalized.

Unanimous support also was voiced for a suggested review of current BPD polices and training to move the department more toward a community policing model of law involvement — again with an emphasis on community participation and transparency.

Select Board member Bruce Lee-Clark said he believes the success of what is expected to be an ongoing implementation and review will hinge on "the process of inclusion" involving the public.

Other than considering an advisory board, a second major focus, Lee-Clark said, should be on reviewing and drafting updated policies in a transparent manner as a means of effecting change. He said a good model for doing that might be the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union process, which he has been involved in and which involves a committee that meets in public developing a policy and then recommending that to the SVSU board for adoption.

Board member Jeanne Conner said the IACP report "gives us a path forward to improve the BPD," but she said the board needed to "a deep dive" into the information and the recommendations and "to resist the instinct to rush."

The board should concentrate on the results of this process, Conner said, rather than the amount of time spent to make the best choices.

The "entire process comes down to the fundamental issue of trust," said Jim Carroll, who said he sees formation of a citizen advisory board as a key component in realizing that. The group should include those who feel marginalized, he said.

Also participating in the meeting, which was held via videoconference and televised on CAT-TV, was Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, who advised the board last fall on selecting a consultant for the study. The board hired the IACP in September, and the four-month review included visits to Bennington for meetings and soliciting input from residents through various formats.

The consulting team and the town released the 55-page report to the public April 20 and accepted written questions through April 27.

Advisory boards

Chairman Donald Campbell asked Reed for his thoughts on the board's options going forward and how other communities have set up advisory groups or handled policy or other police department changes.

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Reed suggested looking at models of advisory boards in Burlington, Rutland, Brattleboro and for the Vermont State Police. He said he would recommend the VSP format, which is an oversight commission with authority to look into complaints, but he said that type of format is something a community should work toward after already having community policing policies in place.

Other formats include groups that are more advisory in nature, Reed said, adding that involving all segments of the community in the process is key, as is inclusion of the public in setting up the board and adopting department policies.

"This is easier said than done," he said, but added, "I applaud the work you've done" thus far.

Among several residents who participated by phone, one caller, Lynn Mazza, said she believes it is imperative that the community be involved immediately as the IACP report is reviewed and in considering changes.

She and Campbell agreed that the coronavirus epidemic, which is forcing videoconferencing over live board meetings, is likely to make the process more difficult.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town office staff can do research for the board, such as in gathering information on other police advisory boards, policies and procedures developed by other departments and in researching training options with the aim of encouraging community policing methods.

He said that information could be reported to the board as it considers implementing recommendations from the consultants.

Reed said an important factor would be allowing "community involvement in the research too."

Campbell said he sees a section of the IACP report recommending shifting where needed from a "warrior model" or policing to more of a "guardian model" of community involvement as a key in the board's coming deliberations.

"This is really a priority," he said, adding that it is important that employees know there will be changes in how the department deals with the public.

Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins listed key points she found in the consultants' report, including reviewing and updating policies, further updating of the department website — which previously displayed officers in helmets, which the IACP team found perpetuated a warrior image; identifying training needs; creating a police liaison position to interact with the public and local groups; and holding community meetings with policy and town officials on a periodic basis.

Campbell has said decisions on implementing the report will likely continue at least through the summer during board meetings or other public sessions.

The $66,000 review was commissioned by the town in August on the recommendation of Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan. The AG's comments followed criticism from former Bennington state Rep. Kiah Morris and others after the department did not make any arrests concerning her complaints of racially motivated harassment and threats, leading to her decision to leave office in 2018.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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