BENNINGTON — Attorney General T.J. Donovan on Monday urged Bennington to consider hiring an "outside law enforcement expert" to review the Bennington Police Department's policies following criticism of the department for its handling of a case involving white supremacist Max Misch and resigned lawmaker Kiah Morris.
Donovan's statement came hours after the Vermont branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP called for a "broader inquiry" into allegations that the Bennington Police Department "failed to disclose information directly related to the safety of Kiah Morris and her family" to the Attorney General's Office in the Misch case.
The call, issued in a joint statement sent by email, relates to the Wednesday arrest of Misch, of Bennington, a white supremacist who pleaded not guilty Thursday to two misdemeanor charges of possessing large-capacity ammunition feeding devices, which became illegal to possess in Vermont as of Oct. 1, 2018.
"It is my opinion that an outside law enforcement expert is needed to review BPD's policies and procedures to ensure that best practices in policing are being followed," reads part of Donovan's statement. "This action step will promote and maintain the public trust in the Bennington Police Department."
Town Manager Stuart Hurd addressed "the apparent misunderstanding" between the police departments and the Attorney General's Office in a prepared statement released Monday afternoon. He said the BPD "cooperated fully" in the investigation by turning over "all information" regarding Morris' and her husband's complaints to the AG and Vermont State Police.
The BPD also worked closely with VSP in the weapons-related investigation of Misch, he said.
"The Town of Bennington and its Police Department remain steadfast in our commitment to the pursuit of racial justice and fair treatment under the law in all aspects of our service to the community," Hurd said.
Misch, 36, was charged by the Attorney General's Office, which concluded an investigation in January that determined Morris was the victim of racial harassment — much of it by Misch online and in person — but did not result in criminal charges due to lack of sufficient evidence and broad legal protections of the First Amendment.
"There has been widespread concern that BPD was not sufficiently responsive to the threats and harassment faced by Kiah Morris and her family," said James Lyall, Vermont ACLU executive director in an email Monday afternoon. "Those concerns were reflected in the Attorney General's statement that there was a `breakdown in Bennington.'"
The AG's statement refers to a September interview between Donovan and Vermont Public Radio, where Donovan claimed there was a "breakdown in Bennington" relative to racial harassment against Morris.
Lyall said the AG's office acknowledged that information was "improperly withheld" from investigators, but it is unclear what else was withheld, or why. Donovan's statement Monday made no reference to the withholding of information.
"Failing to disclose relevant evidence is never acceptable, but it is particularly disturbing in this case given concerns about Bennington law enforcement's inadequate response, as well as longstanding concerns about bias and racism in Bennington's criminal justice system," he said.
The ACLU is asking the AG office to "inquire further" into what information was withheld, why it was withheld, and which Bennington officials were aware. Lyall also noted the ACLU's pending racial profiling litigation (currently in the discovery phase) against the BPD, based in part on police stop data he claims shows that the BPD "has some of the worst racial disparities in the state."
The investigation into whether Misch possessed these illegal devices began in October 2018 at the Bennington Police Department, where Misch's ex-wife, Lisa Shapiro, reported that Misch "was making racially-charged comments" about Morris and had "recently come into possession" of an AK-47 rifle and "several thirty-round magazines," states a Vermont State Police affidavit.
On Monday morning, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said he had not yet read the ACLU statement and declined to comment on the matter.
In an interview Thursday, after Misch's arraignment, Doucette said his department interviewed Shapiro in October 2018, but she told investigators Misch purchased the magazines locally before the ban went into effect. The department was able to confirm these local purchases, and was unable to determine that a crime was committed.
However, in a statement given to the Banner on Feb. 7, Doucette said that Shapiro contacted the Bennington Police Department in October 2018 and spoke about her concerns regarding Misch with Doucette and Detective Larry Cole.
"During the interview, she disclosed to us that Misch was in possession of, she believed, four high-capacity magazines," Doucette said.
Police questioned her further, and she told them that Misch had purchased the magazines locally, and the purchase was made prior to Oct. 1, 2018 — the cutoff date for legal possession.
"Based on that information, Detective Larry Cole and I visited with Misch," Doucette said. "[Detective] Cole went to the local gun shops and confirmed the magazines were purchased at a local gun store, and they were purchased legally. Based on our interpretation of the new Vermont law, you are not allowed to purchase these magazines and bring them back to Vermont. Our investigation was that Misch purchased these magazines locally, prior to the ban going into effect, therefore he did not commit any type of crime."
Doucette acknowledged that recently new information was developed that Misch traveled to New Hampshire to acquire high-capacity magazines. Doucette said Cole conducted another interview with Shapiro where she stated she was with Misch at the time he traveled to New Hampshire, however they did not purchase any magazines at that time.
"Based on the information provided to us, we were not able to take any action against Max Misch," he said, adding that the department determined, based on the facts known to them, that no crime was committed.
The case was assigned to the Vermont State Police on Jan. 25 at the request of the Attorney General's Office, confirmed Adam Silverman, VSP public information officer. In a phone interview with VSP Corporal Roscoe Harrington, Shapiro disclosed that Misch did purchase the magazines in New Hampshire.
"The information that we learned was turned over to Vermont State Police; they followed up and were able to make the arrest of Misch," Doucette said Thursday. "At this point in time the investigation is being handled by Vermont State Police."
Doucette acknowledged the new allegation that Misch purchased the magazines in December.
"If that is the case if in fact Misch went to New Hampshire and purchased high-capacity magazines and brought them back to Vermont, he is in violation of Vermont law," Doucette said. "We could not charge him back in October because the magazines he had were purchased [before the cutoff date]."
Christie Wisniewski can be reached at email@example.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.