Consultants gather feedback about BPD

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BENNINGTON — Despite a sparse turnout for a public feedback session Tuesday, consultants conducting a review of Bennington Police Department procedures said they are receiving a significant amount of input during other meetings and from an online survey.

The team from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was hired by the town for the four-month review of the local department, will be in town through Friday.

They're also holding focus group sessions with business owners and other groups and meeting individually with members of the public and with police officers individually and in groups.

"I think we are making progress and getting feedback that will be useful for the town," said study team member James Baker of Arlington.

Meeting with a half-dozen residents and local officials Tuesday were Jessie Lee, the study's lead subject matter expert, who also has worked for IACP and with the U.S. Justice Department; Jennifer Nwachukwu, associate counsel with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, working on voting rights and hate crime issues; and Baker, a former Vermont State Police trooper in the area and later VSP director, who also has served as the Vermont Police Academy director and as police chief in Manchester and in Rutland.

Also attending the public session was Catherine Cruz, the IACP project coordinator. She said meetings and other sessions with the team are scheduled locally through Friday, but the process of gathering comments and information will be on-going throughout the study.

A second public feedback session is scheduled for Thursday, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Second Congregational Church at 115 Hillside Ave.

The consultants also are meeting with individuals who have requested a private session by contacting the IACP at BenningtonVT@theIACP.org.

And an anonymous online survey concerning the police department has been extended through Nov. 16, and team members urged residents to fill it out.

The survey can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/IACPBennington.

Looking for patterns

In answer to questions, the study team members stressed that they are not here to investigate past incidents. They said that includes complaints that the BPD failed to respond vigorously enough to complaints of racially motivated harassment and threats against former state Rep. Kiah Morris, who is African American.

Those complaints led to discussion of the possible need to review BPD policies and procedures. The Select Board solicited study proposals from several possible vendors and chose the IACP proposal in August.

What they are looking for, Baker said at one point, are patterns in officer responses to police calls and to community issues, and whether those responses differ from acknowledged best law enforcement practices around the country.

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"The culture of a law enforcement agency is very important" in determining officer responses to situations and to the community, Nwachukwu said.

She and Lee stressed the need for training officers to "de-escalate, not escalate" any potentially violent policing situation.

A positive culture can be created or fostered, they said, through effective recruiting of new officers, training in bias recognition and in de-escalating a situation while on a call, and through meeting or working with residents and groups through volunteer or other activities while off duty.

Lee said mid-level supervisors also are important, since an officer trained at the Vermont Police Academy would still learn the ropes on patrol under direction from immediate supervisors, who could either enforce or discourage the policing practices learned at the academy.

Baker said training methods vary widely around the country. Vermont is one of the states that has uniform training of police recruits through the academy, he said, rather than at the department level, as is the case in many of the nation's 18,000 police agencies.

Asked whether it seems shootings by police, particularly of black citizens, has become more common, Baker said the statistics show the numbers to be about the same nationally over a three-year period.

"But there is more awareness," he said, "and the reaction became greater."

Ultimately, he said, that could lead to change, which has occurred in many police forces.

Widespread awareness in the community of a need to reverse police practices is what usually precedes positive change, the consultants said, with the changes emanating from the community, not the department.

Police responses

Among other areas the team looks at are a department's procedures for receiving, responding to and following up on police calls. And they will provide information on the practices the IACP considers the best in a given area of policing.

The IACP is a 30,000-member organization, Baker said, that is considered a leader in research on law enforcement topics and in developing model training plans and policies and procedures.

The team will complete a report with its findings and recommendations at the conclusion of the study, and members will remain available to help implement any best practices or other department changes.

More information can be found on the town website.

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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