Group to propose police oversight board

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BENNINGTON — A group of residents is drafting an ordinance that would create a police department oversight commission in Bennington.

"The purpose of the ordinance and oversight commission is to improve and strengthen police-community relations," said Logan Snow, who is acting as spokesperson for the group. "It is intended to create an environment which allows for better communication, understanding, and relations between the department and the community."

The proposal, which she said is being written by a working group, most of whom want to remain anonymous at this point, won't be completed and submitted until after an on-going consultant review of the Bennington Police Department, Snow said.

That review is expected to take three to four months and is being done by a team from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was hired in August after study proposals were sought by the Select Board.

"The group I'm working with is an anonymous group of citizens in Bennington who came together because of our mutual interest and concern about what's happening in town," Snow said. "The goal is definitely not to discipline the police, it is entirely intended to help bridge the gap between the community and the police department, as there seems to be a lapse in communication between the two."

"We are now performing the [consultant] assessment," Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Thursday, when asked to comment. "Let's see what comes of it. I don't want to pre-judge a proposal I know nothing about."

Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said of the proposal, "While we all have opinions, public policy needs to be based on facts and penetrating analysis. Our hope in hiring IACP, probably the most widely respected firm of its kind, is that we will get a factual, non-biased, outside evaluation of how our police force is doing. Their eventual conclusions and recommendations will be considered deeply by town government. If they conclude that an oversight committee is warranted, for example, the Select Board will give this and IACP's other recommendations serious consideration."

Draft provisions

The police commission ordinance remains in draft form, Snow said, but the basic provisions are likely to include a seven-member commission — at least five of whom are from Bennington, and with a youth member; that the commission, community organizations and the Select Board ensure that the members reflect diverse backgrounds and consider income, race, ethnicity, age, gender, and sexual orientation.

Also included would be commission members with a variety of skills, such as in mediation, conflict resolution, mental health services, housing, homelessness, anti-racist and equity reform and transformative justice — as well as members with experience with the police and the criminal justice system.

According to the draft ordinance, "Any individual, whether or not involved in an incident and without respect to citizenship or residence, may file a complaint with the commission or the [police] department. The commission shall not inquire about any complainant's immigration status or gender identity."

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In addition, "The complaint may be filed in person, by telephone, by email, or by mail. The complaint should contain information about the alleged incident, including location, date and involved police officers, if known. Any complaints received by the [town] that are addressed to the commission, should be promptly forwarded to the commission. The complainant may choose to file the complaint anonymously. If filed anonymously, the commission shall not attempt to determine the identity of the complainant and shall attempt to communicate with the complainant only if it can do so without learning the complainant's identity."

Other draft provisions, Snow said, include that "the police chief will provide status updates regarding the investigation to the commission. The commission may serve as a point of contact for the complainant throughout the investigation and review process, and provide the complainant updates as to the progress."

Upon closure of an internal investigation of a complaint referred by the commission, "the police chief will report to the commission in writing, stating the police chief's determinations as to: the facts of the incident; whether there was any inappropriate conduct by the police; any discipline that has been or will be imposed, and any changes in department policies or procedures that ought to be made as a result of the incident," according to the draft ordinance.

"Organizers from Women's March and Women's March Vermont provided assistance with formulating the ordinance, which was also reviewed by [American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont]," Snow said. "We don't have a time frame; we're waiting to see what happens with the [department review and report]."

She added that the format is based on a police review board in St. Paul, Minn., and the Brattleboro Citizen Police Communications Committee.

The current police department study was approved by the Select Board several months after Attorney General T.J. Donovan recommended one by an independent entity for the department amid criticism from civil rights groups and the ACLU.

Donovan referred to online racial harassment and alleged threats that led in September 2018 to former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington abandoning her campaign for re-election. Morris is African American.

Morris and others had been critical of the BPD for not making any arrests while the harassment continued over two fall election cycles, in 2016 and 2018.

Police Chief Paul Doucette has maintained that the department investigated every compliant involving harassment or threats reported by Morris. But he said police, as well as the State's Attorney's Office, did not find enough evidence to press criminal charges.

Prior to selecting the International Association of Chiefs of Police to perform the review, the Select Board retained Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to help ensure an equitable request for proposals process for choosing a consultant group.

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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