ACLU and NAACP Statements in Response to Report on Bennington Police Practices

Police Department’s Inadequate Policies, “Warrior Mentality” Result in Widespread Distrust

April 24, 2020

BENNINGTON, Vt. – This week, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued a series of recommendations for reforming the Bennington Police Department (BPD). The report was commissioned by town officials after the Vermont Branches of the NAACP and ACLU of Vermont demanded an investigation, following revelations that Bennington officials withheld relevant evidence from Attorney General T.J. Donovan’s investigation into the harassment of Vermont state legislator Kiah Morris.

The IACP report catalogues numerous deficiencies in BPD—which has long faced complaints of biased policing and is the subject of an ACLU racial profiling lawsuit—describing a department that is badly out of step with best practices and deeply mistrusted by Bennington community members. In a survey of local residents, 1 in 5 respondents reported feeling discriminated against by BPD officers.

At the same time, the IACP report sidesteps available data and analysis showing pronounced racial disparities in BPD traffic stops and makes no mention of multiple Vermont Supreme Court decisions concerning unlawful BPD traffic stops of Black motorists.

Vermont State Director of the NAACP Tabitha Moore: The Vermont Branches of the NAACP are eager to engage BPD in developing next steps to address the dangerous and unethical culture and behaviors described in the IACP report. This report is unsurprising considering the history of biased policing in Bennington and the subsequent minimization of community concerns by several town officials. We expect the Selectboard to take immediate action to hold Chief Doucette and his staff accountable for their infractions. Likewise, we expect town officials to begin repairing community harm by enacting Recommendation 8 from the report: establish a community advisory committee to the BPD. This step ensures that the community has input into all further recommendations, especially those that involve adopting 21st century policing principles including data-driven initiatives, the development of policies and codes of conduct, and developing training to support officer adherence to bias-free policing practices.”

The IACP report does not address the withholding of evidence in the Kiah Morris investigation, and more than a year later, neither the Attorney General nor Bennington officials have accounted for why that evidence was withheld or which public officials were aware.

ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall: “All Bennington residents deserve law enforcement that is accountable to the community and that acts in accordance with constitutional standards. This report describes a troubled and abusive police department, one that remains stuck in the 20th century, ignorant of or indifferent to community policing principles. That ‘warrior mentality’ is why nearly 40% of respondents don’t trust BPD, while fully 20% report experiencing discrimination. The fact that town officials continue to downplay these findings and deny that racial bias exists in Bennington’s police department only goes to show how badly a systemwide overhaul is needed. The IACP’s recommendations should be implemented immediately and we support the many Bennington community members who continue to demand systemic reform.”

Among the many recommendations for reforming BPD policy and practice, the IACP’s report encourages Bennington to adopt a civilian oversight model, with a diverse membership, something local residents have been advocating for months.

Bennington’s Selectboard has scheduled a May 4 meeting to review the report recommendations, which are posted on the town’s website.

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