Our view: Public, police both would benefit from citizen oversight

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The public release of complaints against the Bennington Police Department and Chief Paul Doucette by former state Rep. Kiah Morris' husband, James Lawton, points to a dire need for civilian oversight of police — both to benefit the public and police officers.

Mr. Lawton, who filed a formal complaint in December concerning the BPD's investigation into racial harassment and threats against his wife and family in 2018, expressed frustration this week that no decision or resolution has been released.

He filed the complaint with the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which operates the Vermont Police Academy, but that organization has a policy of not commenting on "the status or existence of any investigations. As investigations are completed, the council may or may not be able to comment, depending on their outcome and adjudication," a spokesman said.

When Mr. Lawton released his complaint and backup material to members of the Select Board and the public, he said he hoped the board would take action. Instead, none of the town officials contacted issued a response, some saying that "these complaints are supposed to be confidential."

That indeed is the policy of the Justice Training Council, but it should not be the policy of the Select Board, which hires the town manager, who in turn hires the police chief with board approval.

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Consider if Mr. Lawton had made public complaints against other town officials. Wouldn't those get a swift airing during board meetings or in the media? You can bet they would.

Instead, these complaints — alleging what Mr. Lawton calls unprofessional conduct by Chief Doucette, failure to process computer-related evidence in a timely manner, and ineffective investigation of his family's complaints in 2018 — have been allowed to fester with no resolution or decision imminent.

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During this period, social media comments have often raged along the preconceived notions of whoever is commenting, whether or not they have a clue what took place or what constitutes good, bad or mediocre policing. Everybody is an expert on Facebook or Twitter, in their own mind at least.

As Bennington considers a series of recommendations from consultants with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, following a four-month review of the BPD policies and procedures, we are not alone in seeing a citizen police oversight group as a key to change — and to resolving these types of complaints with more transparency and much sooner.

In truth, complaints against police often involve distrust of officers because of a single or multiple encounters with the individual or family. When there is no trusted way to publicly debate the validity of complaints, everything remains below the surface while views on both sides harden.

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Sometimes frustration also erupts in protest — or worse, as the nation has seen in recent weeks.

Transparency is often viewed with suspicion by police departments, but the types of complaints raised by Mr. Lawton are exactly the kind that would benefit from public discussion, no matter whether any firm decision was reached. At least residents would have felt their voices were heard, and if the police made mistakes or engaged in misconduct, reforms could be instituted and/or those in government who oversee departments can take action.

For police officers, the benefit would be in directly providing their side of what occurred leading to the complaint, rather than allowing the extreme, knee-jerk views on both sides of every issue to dominate on social media.

The Select Board should take up the proposal for a citizen oversight group in Bennington as soon as possible.


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