Review of BPD policies, procedures approved
BENNINGTON — The Select Board has unanimously selected the International Association of Police Chiefs to conduct an audit review of the Bennington Police Department procedures and practices.
The nonprofit organization submitted by far the best response to a request for proposals sent in June to 10 potential vendors, according to Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, who acted as a consultant to the town during the RFP process.
Reed, who gave a presentation on the selection process during the board's Monday meeting, said the IAPC "was the only one of the large firms to deliver a multi-racial team" to oversee the review.
The impetus for the study, he noted, concerned complaints about possible racial bias by local police.
The audit stems from a suggestion earlier this year from Attorney General T.J. Donovan, who referred to complaints from former state Rep. Kiah Morris and others that the Bennington department appeared not to have thoroughly investigated racially motivated online harassment and threats against her, resulting in no criminal charges being filed.
Morris, who is African American, ended her campaign for re-election in August 2018 amid what she said was a continuation of harassment that had begun during the 2016 election season and stepped up again during the summer of 2018.
Police Chief Paul Doucette has denied the department failed to thoroughly investigate Morris' complaints.
Reed told the board Monday that he was disappointed some other vendor entities that responded to the study RFP "seemed not to have read" details of the request, especially those focusing on racial issues and bias.
Some of the proposals seemed to be "boilerplate" submissions not related to Bennington's goals, he said, while the IAPC committed to the effort an experienced team that was also multi-cultural and multi-gender in composition.
The board approved spending $66,000 for the audit review, which Town Manager Stuart Hurd said is expected to begin in early September. The audit review will last about four months and the organization will provide a report on its findings and recommendations.
Reed, whose Brattleboro-based organization has worked with 8 of the 14 county sheriff's departments in Vermont and with most of the larger police departments in the state on training or other initiatives, said the IAPC is considered the "preeminent law enforcement organization" for such a review, and it was the only nonprofit vendor to respond to the RFP.
The organization also develops and offers "the best training available" on law enforcement topics, he said, including some of the programs other vendors referred to in their proposals for the review.
The study process will include an assessment of the policing environment within the department, workforce and community surveys, individual interviews with employees and community stakeholders, focus group sessions, assessments of the core functions of the department, the collection of data about department operations and an assessment of how the department's procedures compare with accepted law enforcement best practices.
The organization also will provide assistance after the report is submitted to help implement changes related to the findings.
A number of residents who have raised questions about a lack of inclusiveness of the general public in the selection process attended the board meeting.
Mary Gerisch said she was "a little concerned" how residents who might be intimidated expressing views or complaints about the department in public can be brought into the outreach aspects of the study, such as focus group meetings.
Some who want to participate "might need to remain invisible" to feel comfortable, she said.
Mia Schultz said there has been "no community member" involved in the process thus far, and called for wider involvement going forward.
Another resident, Rachel Blumenthal, said her principal concern is that the entire process be transparent to the public, another aspect she said has been lacking thus far.
Reed said the IAPC teams have a great deal of experience in drawing out comments and feedback from the public "in a way that is appropriate," and they are adept at identifying community "thought leaders" and in seeking input on police-community relationships and related topics.
In addition, Hurd said anyone wishing to become involved in the review process will be able to sign up via email or letter to the Select Board. He said email could be sent to email@example.com or mail to Bennington Select Board (attention Stuart Hurd), 205 South St., Bennington, VT 05201.
Lisa Carton spoke about the need for greater community involvement and transparency. After the meeting, she and Gerisch said they intend to organize an alliance of local groups and individuals to help ensure people with complaints or comments about the BPD will have their voices heard by the audit team.
Most of those who attended the meeting were also present when citizens this spring proposed that a civilian review commission be established to provide monitoring and oversight of the department on a continuing basis.
When the subject was broached Monday, Reed said that such issues could be addressed in the IAPC's findings and report. After the report is issued, he said, it would be up to the department and the Select Board to determine what changes to make in policies and procedures or whether additional steps like a police oversight group are needed.
Information that was sent to prospective vendors with the RFP states that in 2018, "Bennington drew national and international attention when state Representative Kiah Morris, and African-American woman, did not seek re-election after two years of online trolling and threats from white supremacists."
The wording referred to a media conference Donovan held in Bennington in January to announce that, while Morris was a victim of racial harassment, there was "insufficient evidence to criminally charge Rep. Morris's tormentors."
At that time, the RFP continued, "some community members, particularly residents of color, were disappointed in the decision and blamed the Bennington Police Department with indifference and dereliction of duty to protect former Rep. Morris as well as other residents of color in Bennington."
The RFP description also referred to Donovan's comments earlier this year, during which he said it was his opinion that "an outside law enforcement expert is needed to review Bennington Police Department policies and procedures" to ensure best practices are being followed.
In addition, the Vermont NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont called for a similar third-party assessment "with an additional emphasis on systemic racial bias," the RFP states.
Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said Monday that during discussions about a department review he became convinced it could point out problems, note strong points and lead to a closer relationship between the BPD and every segment of the community.
Campbell acknowledged that the study will cost "a lot of money," but said he was convinced by Reed that a community shouldn't cut fiscal corners on such a review if it wanted to realize significant benefits going forward.
Reed said the IAPC, which he said submitted what was clearly the best proposal, did, in fact, agree to lower its original fee during negotiations with the town.
He added that it is best to look at the study "as an investment, as compared to an expenditure."
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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