Petition calls for removal of Bennington police chief, town manager
BENNINGTON — The goal of a Rights and Democracy-Vermont petition concerning the Bennington Police Department is to show support for residents around the state who feel marginalized in dealing with law enforcement authorities, according to Mary Gerisch, a member of the local RAD chapter and co-chairwoman of the statewide organization.
She added that calls in the online petition for the replacement of Police Chief Paul Doucette and Town Manager Stuart Hurd reflect what RAD believes is the only way to ensure there is a "change of culture" within the department.
"This petition is also a statewide effort to offer support for marginalized people," Gerisch said, referring to persons of color, the poor, or those with mental health, addiction or other issues, many of whom said in a recent survey they did not trust Bennington police and were afraid to ask officers for help.
The hope, she said, is that people who feel the same way in other communities will know they have people around the state willing to stand up for them.
The Select Board currently is reviewing a report from International Association of Chiefs of Police consultants that makes 25 recommendations for changing or upgrading BPD policies and procedures.
A team of consultants hired by the town conducted a four-month review of the department and released its report on April 20.
That study was a response to criticism early last year of the BPD from civil rights organizations and Attorney General T.J. Donovan over its response to numerous complaints of racially motivated harassment and threats from former state Rep. Kiah Morris, who is African American.
While acknowledging a need for change, especially relative to bringing BPD policies up to date, both Doucette and Hurd have denied race was a factor in handling complaints filed by Morris, who in late 2018 dropped her bid for another term in the House. They also contended that the complaints were properly investigated, even though not enough evidence to bring criminal charges was found.
The officials have said BPD policy updates began well before the release of the report, in consultation with the IACP team members. Copies of those updated policies, including one on internal department investigations, were included in the Select Board's meeting packet on Monday.
During a prior meeting to discuss the IACP report, none of the board members raised objections to implementing all of the 25 recommendations from the consultants.
The consultants did not recommend any disciplinary measures. They said their focus was on the policies and procedures and on how the BPD can effect change through adopting policies that foster a community policing approach that values transparency and cooperation with local groups and all segments of society.
The Select Board would be the body to implement personnel or other departmental changes, the consultants said.
Gerisch said over the weekend that RAD has not yet completed tabulating the petition signatures received thus far online and is being careful to verify each. The coronavirus epidemic has made collecting signatures in person or going door-to-door impossible thus far, she said.
However, Gerisch said "there has been a good response — all over Vermont" to the initiative.
She said additional signatures will be sought for the next few weeks.
Asked whether Morris, who recently took a position with RAD-Vermont, was working on the petition, Gerisch said, "Kiah is not directly involved. She is on our staff as Movement Politics director."
The petition, posted May 8 on the RAD website, states in part, "The recently released International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) evaluation of the Bennington Police Department is just a snapshot of a much larger problem — one that reaches far beyond the boundaries of Bennington."
It states that a survey as part of the IACP report found one in five residents said they had been discriminated against by the police and 40 percent said they "did not trust the Bennington Police Department."
In addition, the petition states that "LGBTQIA+, or members of racial or ethnic minority groups, and those who experience mental illness or are homeless who report crimes to Bennington Police have been told they will become the targets of the criminal investigations for reporting."
And the petition says the report found the BPD "has no legitimate complaint process for citizens and complaints are handled at the sole discretion of the town manager" and the "Bennington Police Department is not collecting and reporting legally required data about its practices in defiance of state law."
Call for resignations
The petition calls for the resignations, saying that Hurd, Doucette and Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell "each made comments in the press to distort the findings and question the legitimacy of the NAACP and ACLU's critical responses to the report. In doing so, their comments dismiss the very real concerns of affected residents."
The local officials all said they thought officials with the two rights organization had slanted the IACP report findings to fit an agenda of advocacy. Hurd has said that, on the issue of perceived racial bias, which had prompted the study, the consultants did not find evidence of systematic bias — but that a lack of policies or updated provisions could alienate police from the community they serve.
The petition asks Campbell to recuse himself from the ongoing discussions about how to implement the IACP recommendations. And it calls for establishing a police oversight board with subpoena power that is led by residents from marginalized communities.
Also called for is a re-examination of complaints filled over the past five years against the police to ensure requirements in Vermont Act 56, related to the professional regulation of law enforcement officers, were followed.
During a recent board meeting, Campbell said he was "hurt" by the petition wording, adding, "It really hurt me after we've spent a lot of time to make this [study] process happen."
He noted that the board raised no objections when asked whether any of the recommendations should not be implemented.
There also appears to be considerable support for either a citizen police advisory board or a more formal oversight commission, along with periodic meetings involving the police, town officials and community groups and residents to air policing issues and talk about longer-term plans for the department.
Hurd said of the petition, "Bennington is a good community; it is a welcoming community. I have served this community for more than 47 years; Chief Doucette for 30 years. We live here; we work here; we have made our lives here. We have work to do and will continue to serve this community to the best of our abilities. As for Donald Campbell, he is a man of reason, compassionate and kind. He is well respected here and a credit to his community."
A resident who has called into board meetings to defend the BPD, the board and Campbell, Mike Bethel, said Monday, "I do not believe Bennington is a racist community, but that isn't to say we don't have some idiots and racists, as do all other communities."
Bethel said he would consider trying "to counter" any negative image of the town that results from the RAD petition.
Warrior versus guardian
A section of the IACP report strongly advises the BPD to move toward what is considered a "guardian" style of community police and away from signs and images they saw of a "warrior" style within the department.
One aspect of that change has been to update the BPD website to remove images of officers in helmets and to post a citizen complaint form on the site explaining how those would be handled.
The police also were advised to do more outreach events to forge a closer connection with groups that feel marginalized, and Doucette has said that began during the IACP study before release of the report.
Concerning the petition's call for removal or the chief and town manager, Gerisch, as well as other members of the Bennington Rights and Democracy chapter, has questioned whether leaders in place for decades will be able to oversee the cultural shift RAD is calling for.
"This is not a personal vendetta," she said, adding that "the truth is that many of the same people have been in charge for decades."
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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