Study of Bennington PD policies, practices sought
BENNINGTON — The Select Board is seeking proposals from consultants to conduct an assessment of Bennington Police Department policies and practices in light of racial harassment of former Rep. Kiah Morris and criticism about the response of local police.
The town will send a request for proposals to several consultants, seeking responses by June 14.
In providing background for consultants, 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."
In January, it states, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan convened a press conference in Bennington 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, according to the description, "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 description also refers to the attorney general's comments to media 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.
The attorney general previously had said that, after he called in the state police and a computer crimes unit to investigate alleged threats against Morris, Bennington police failed to turn over to the AG's office information concerning Max Misch, who has admitted trolling Morris online and to being a white supremacist.
Misch, of Bennington, later was charged following a state police investigation concerning a high-capacity magazine purchase in New Hampshire. He faces two counts in Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division of unlawful possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette has repeatedly denied that police failed to thoroughly investigate reports of threats against Morris.
Concerning information his department had earlier learned about an alleged high-capacity magazine purchase by Misch, Doucette has said a Vermont purchase was legal at the time as that new legislation provision did not take effect until October. When state police later investigated an alleged purchase in New Hampshire, he said, the law had taken effect.
In addition to Donovan's call for a review of BPD policies, the Vermont NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont have called for a similar third-party assessment "with an additional emphasis on systemic racial bias," the RFP states.
In January, Donovan also announced plans for a uniform statewide reporting system for incidents of bias, along with a planned series of community forums around the state to gather input, including one in Bennington.
Natalie Silver, a spokeswoman for the AG's Office, said Tuesday, "We are continuing with the community forums to discuss hate crimes and bias incidents and people's experiences. The first forum is happening next week, May 23, in Winooski. This is the first in a series. There will be more around the state."
Potential vendors to provide the assessment are being asked to compare and contrast department policies with best practices for police forces; determine if any systemic racial bias manifests itself in current policies or practices, and to recommend changes if needed.
The consultant also is asked to develop an action plan to measure managerial accountability concerning increased recruitment and retention of diverse employee candidates; increasing impartial policing, community engagement, positive feedback from residents of color and clear and consistent policy implementation.
The contract will require an assessment report with recommendations, a baseline assessment on marginalized community-police relations; and recommendations on how to improve those relations.
The Select Board had previously approved seeking an assessment of the police department and gave final approval on Monday.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said of the RFP, "The town is moving forward in collaboration with the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. We are looking forward to the consultant selection and the ultimate outcome of the assessment. I believe strongly in our police department, its employees, and its policies and procedures. Honestly, I expect an assessment of this kind to prove helpful looking to the future. As we all know, the art of policing is ever changing."
The town has been working with Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, in developing the RFP and identifying qualified firms, Hurd said, and Reed will help with the selection process.
He said about nine RFPs were sent out.
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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