Process of changing BPD begins with online session
BENNINGTON — Efforts to reform Bennington Police Department policies and procedures were launched Wednesday during a community gathering-style videoconference led by consultants Curtiss Reed Jr. and Mary Gannon of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
Reed and Gannon were hired by the town to help local officials and residents implement recommendations in a report that followed a four-month review of the BPD's policies and procedures by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
After posing some questions to gather input on priorities from participants during the online conference, Reed, executive director of the Brattleboro-based organization, and Gannon, a diversity and educational equity consultant, gave an overview of the implementation process, which is expected to take about six months.
Gannon noted that other police agencies in Vermont, including in Rutland and Brattleboro and the Vermont State Police, have undergone a reform process in recent years, and she and Reed have been involved in some of those efforts.
She said that "a lot of the work is in forming community connections and building relationships," which take time.
"I'm really excited we're at this moment with Bennington," she said.
Reed said that, while the IACP report includes good recommendations, it uses "professional language" to describe issues and possible solutions. He said he wants to re-imagine those recommendations during a process that focuses on getting "maximum collaboration from area residents."
The consultants said that beginning next week, information will be posted for openings on two three-person teams of residents who will be asked to research options for forming a police oversight group and for instituting community policing methods in rural areas.
Reed said that since the committee members chosen will be paid and in temporary town positions, there will be instructions on how to apply and what information is required, and there will be an interview by Reed and someone from the town office. He said he would suggest Assistant Town Manager Daniel Monks.
Reed said a webpage where resources on the policing topics to be covered will be created by the Bennington Free Library, and information on the process also will be posted on the town website to keep residents informed of the process schedule and activities.
The scope of work proposed by Reed and Gannon also includes workshops for town and police managers to cover such topics as core operational values; resistance to change theory, equitable business practices, values clarification, and mitigating the negative effects of bias.
The town is paying Reed's organization $21,700 for the implementation work and providing a total of $3,000 to pay the six citizen research group members.
Reed said the initial workshops with supervisors is an attempt to bring those leaders onboard with community policing changes so that others in the department can learn from them.
"If the local leaders are not onboard, then the work will not take hold," he said.
There also will be efforts to increase community involvement and development of town and community-driven vision and mission statements for the BPD, the consultants said.
Gannon said in response to questions in the conference Wednesday that there will be an effort "to bring people who feel marginalized to the table."
Reed added that "there is a nuance between vulnerable and marginalized" citizens that will be considered, meaning between someone vulnerable because of disabilities or economic or educational issues and those who are simply marginalized because they are not part of the "dominant culture," such as because of race or ethnicity.
Several callers urged Reed and Gannon to ensure participation by those who feel marginalized and expressed fear or distrust of the BPD in a survey as part of the IACP review.
Mary Gerisch noted that more than 50 people showed up for a meeting organized by Rights and Democracy Bennington to discuss complaints against police and related issues, while only a handful attended a public meeting held by the IACP review team.
Many are uncomfortable with the idea of attending a meeting with police in attendance for fear they might be retaliated against over their comments, Gerisch said.
She and other callers also said it is important to include the community in every step in the process and make information readily available to the public, even for people who lack internet access.
Gerisch recommended also having a Facebook page to disseminate information and allow residents to comment.
Reed indicated Facebook might be useful but there also should be a webpage, such as the library, to collect information and other resources on community policing topics in one place.
Another of her focus areas, Gannon said, is on developing training programs relating to combating bias, understanding the history of racism and similar topics.
Asked whether police officers will be required to attend training sessions, she said, there will be "no opt out" for the sessions.
In general, the consultants will use training and other methods to "set the tone" for how an officer can utilize community policing methods effectively. If some officers are resistant to those changes, she said, "we would bring the attention to that."
The IACP review was suggested after complaints in early 2019 the department had not adequately responded and failed to make any arrests concerning complaints of online, racially motivated harassment from former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington.
Among the report's recommendations were a review and update of BPD policies, consideration of a civilian advisory or review board, and greater efforts to involve the community in the department's overall mission.
The report notes a citizen survey conducted as part of the review that found more than 30 percent of those who responded did not trust the department in at least some situations.
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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