July 24, 2023 

Stephanie Gomory, Communications Director, 802-223-6304x111, [email protected]

MONTPELIER, Vt. – ACLU clients Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler filed a lawsuit against the Town of Bennington on Friday for unlawfully retaliating against the couple after they submitted verbal and written complaints to the Bennington Police Department (BPD) about their numerous experiences of racially-motivated police harassment. The lawsuit follows several years of litigation at the Vermont Human Rights Commission. 

ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Harrison Stark: “No one should fear retribution for seeking to hold their government accountable. It is especially disturbing when that happens in response to complaints about racial discrimination and harassment by a police force with an established record of bias and abuse. Yet that is exactly what the Town of Bennington did to Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler —in retaliation, and in violation of our clients’ rights.”  

While residing in Bennington in 2020, Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler experienced sustained harassment, surveillance, and vilification by BPD officers. Between April and June 2020, Bennington police officers surveilled, stopped, interrogated, and ticketed Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler on numerous occasions. Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler submitted formal complaints about eight separate incidents, but they were ignored. They believe that BPD’s near-constant surveillance was motivated by racial animus and hostility towards Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler as an interracial couple. 

The Bennington Select Board, at that time charged with reviewing civilian complaints against the Police Department, did not contact Ms. Keating or Mr. Fowler. Instead, it reviewed their complaints based solely on BPD’s accounts, with BPD officials in the room. The Select Board then scheduled a special public meeting and cleared BPD of any wrongdoing.  

The Board also announced a new policy: from that point onwards, complaints of police misconduct would be kept confidential where the Board discovered misconduct, but for any complaint deemed unsubstantiated, the Select Board would publish all information about the complaint and those who submitted it. 

Under the just-announced policy, the Board then voted to release “the full record” of materials about Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler “immediately.” The Town then broadcast approximately 20 minutes of police footage of Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler and published online 62-pages of documents detailing nearly every aspect of their lives, including past and current addresses; their birthdates, phone numbers, and driver’s license numbers and vehicle descriptions; and the addresses, names, and birthdates of their family members.  

Publicly shamed by the Select Board for speaking out and fearful for their safety, both Mr. Fowler and Ms. Keating were forced to flee Bennington with almost nothing, leaving behind their furniture, clothes, and other personal effects.

ACLU of Vermont Legal Director Lia Ernst: “It’s not hard to see that there are glaring problems with local government in Bennington. That was the conclusion of the Town’s own outside policing experts more than three years ago, yet fundamentally nothing has changed. This case has major implications for the ability of residents to self-govern and to hold public officials accountable, and our clients look forward to defending these democratic principles and vindicating their rights in court.” 

The ACLU of Vermont, Rutland Area Branch NAACP, and local residents have long objected to racial discrimination in Bennington government and its police department, and data has consistently shown that Bennington police stop and search Black motorists at disproportionate rates. 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 community. One in five Bennington residents surveyed by IACP reported feeling discriminated against by BPD officers; fear of retaliation for seeking police assistance or submitting complaints was also widespread. The IACP provided detailed recommendations to change police practices and culture, but three years after the report was published Bennington has done little to implement them. 

The complaint alleges that the Bennington Select Board violated Vermont law, which prohibits retaliating against those who submit complaints of discrimination. The lawsuit also contends that Bennington’s policy for reviewing complaints—a policy that protected officials accused of misconduct and dissuaded citizen-complainants from seeking redress—violated the Vermont Constitution’s protections for citizens seeking to hold their government accountable. 

A copy of the complaint is available here.