Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler filed a complaint in 2021 with the Vermont Human Rights Commission (HRC) against the Bennington Select Board for unlawfully retaliating against the couple after they submitted verbal and written complaints to the Bennington Police Department about their numerous experiences of racially-motivated policing. The ACLU filed suit on the couple's behalf in July 2023.
The Select Board retaliated against Keating and Fowler by publicly revealing and publishing their identities and status as complainants, along with other detailed personal information -- in violation of Vermont law, which prohibits public disclosure of complainants’ identifying information and retaliating against those who submit complaints of discrimination.
The Select Board's actions violated Keating and Fowler's privacy, caused them to fear for their safety – so much they had to relocate to another state – and seem intended to discourage other people from reporting discrimination by Bennington's police department. This case is another example of Black Vermonters driven out of their communities due to racist harassment, retaliation, and a lack of support.
Cassandra Keating, ACLU of Vermont client: “I had big hopes and dreams of being able to raise my children in the country, and my vision from an outsider looking in was that people in the country would be more kind than the city and hold the door for the person behind them. But once we arrived in Vermont our experience was much different. It was nothing that we ever imagined. The Bennington Police Department targeted us because Joel is a Black man. Nobody at the town did anything about it. It was a really sad situation that we feared the people who were supposed to protect us.”
The ACLU of Vermont, Rutland Area Branch NAACP, and other groups have long objected to racial discrimination in Bennington government and its police department. In 2016, the ACLU sued Bennington for systemic racial profiling, resulting in a settlement. In 2019, following public outcry over Bennington’s response to racial harassment of then-state representative Kiah Morris, Bennington commissioned a review of its police department by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
The resulting report described a police department with a “warrior mentality,” out of step with best practices, and distrusted by a large segment of the Bennington community. Twenty percent of town residents surveyed by IACP reported feeling discriminated against by Bennington police, and fear of retaliation for seeking police assistance or submitting complaints was widespread. The IACP provided detailed recommendations to change police practices and culture, but nearly one year after the report was published Bennington has done little to implement them.
Police data has consistently shown that Bennington police stop and search Black motorists at disproportionate rates, and the most recent UVM analysis of that data showed Bennington police stopped drivers at a rate nearly eight times the national average. Preliminary 2020 data shows that, despite having one-third the number of sworn officers and one-third the population of Burlington, Bennington police stop more drivers than the Burlington police.
Keating and Fowler, represented by the ACLU, are asking the Vermont Human Rights Commission to investigate the Bennington Select Board to determine (1) whether it violated Vermont anti-discrimination law, and (2) whether the Select Board’s policy of publishing the identities and other personal information of individuals who submit formal complaints against the Bennington Police Department is discriminatory and unlawful.
In addition, the ACLU and Rutland Area Branch NAACP are calling on the Town of Bennington to immediately change its policy to ensure future complainants’ identities and personal information are kept confidential from the police officers in question, anyone not involved in the internal affairs investigation, and the general public.
The ACLU and Rutland Area Branch NAACP are also calling for Bennington to overhaul its police department and implement the IACP’s key recommendations – issued almost one year ago – which include: creating an accessible system to file citizen complaints; improving how BPD tracks and analyzes data; ensuring diverse representation on the police policy advisory committee and civilian review and oversight board; among other recommendations.
Bennington community members, supported by the ACLU, have also called for an independent citizen board with subpoena power to provide meaningful oversight over the Bennington Police Department.