Bennington Agrees to Settle Racial Profiling Case

Shamel Alexander’s lawsuit highlighted ongoing crisis of systemic racism in Bennington PD

June 24, 2020

MONTPELIER—A civil rights lawsuit brought by Shamel Alexander against the Town of Bennington and its police department has been settled out of court, with the city agreeing to a $30,000 cash settlement to resolve claims of systemic racial profiling by Bennington police.

ACLU of Vermont senior staff attorney Lia Ernst: “Our client is grateful to have this case resolved, having shined a spotlight on system-wide discriminatory police practices in Bennington. This settlement does not alleviate the need for top-to-bottom changes to a deeply troubled police department and to a municipal leadership that continues to deny there is even a problem with unconstitutional police practices in Bennington. The people of Bennington deserve far better.”  

Bennington had twice asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit—and was twice rejected. In denying the defendants’ second motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled that, based on facts alleged, it was reasonable to infer that, “had Bennington appropriately trained or supervised its police officers with respect to racial disparities in stops and searches, Alexander would not have been stopped or searched and his equal protection rights would not have been violated.”

The court’s decision cited a Vermont study showing that Bennington police stopped Black drivers far out of proportion to their share of the driving population and were five times more likely to search Black drivers than white drivers—while searches of Black drivers were less likely to uncover an arrestable offense. The study showed that racial disparities were not isolated to a few officers, but rather were observable in data for 22 of 24 officers in the Bennington Police Department (BPD).

This settlement comes two months after the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued a series of recommendations for reforming the BPD. The IACP report catalogued numerous deficiencies in BPD, describing a department badly out of step with best practices, exhibiting a “warrior mentality,” and deeply mistrusted by Bennington community members. In a survey of local residents, 40% of respondents said they didn’t trust BPD, while fully 20% reported experiencing discrimination. 

At the same time, the IACP report sidestepped available data and analysis—the same data cited by Judge Crawford —showing pronounced racial disparities in BPD traffic stops and made no mention of Vermont Supreme Court decisions finding BPD had unlawfully stopped Black men. Bennington leaders are now deciding whether and how to act on the report.

ACLU of Vermont senior staff attorney Jay Diaz: “The ongoing problems with Bennington police show the limits of traditional police reform efforts and the need to more boldly reimagine the future of policing in this state. Vermont’s legislature has an important role to play in adopting policies that reduce the power of police and make them accountable to their communities. The events of the past several weeks show that people are not going to tolerate lip service and half measures any longer.”

In July 2013, Shamel Alexander was riding in a taxi when it was stopped on a pretext by Bennington Police. The reason police offered for the stop was an equipment violation, but they quickly turned it into an investigation of Mr. Alexander—despite a lack of reasonable suspicion to believe he was committing any crime.

Mr. Alexander was arrested for a drug offense, but his subsequent conviction was unanimously overturned by the Vermont Supreme Court, which held that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Mr. Alexander is represented by the ACLU of Vermont and cooperating attorney David Williams of Jarvis, McArthur & Williams.