CASSANDRA KEATING AND JOEL FOWLER v. TOWN OF BENNINGTON
At the ACLU’s request, the Vermont Human Rights Commission (“HRC”) conducted a two-year investigation into the Bennington Select Board’s handling of a 2020 complaint by Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler regarding their treatment by the Bennington Police Department. The HRC Staff Attorney Investigator and the HRC Executive Director & Legal Counsel found there were no reasonable grounds to believe the Select Board discriminated against or retaliated against Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler, and recommended that the HRC Commissioners find the same.
The HRC Commissioners did not make a final determination, but the ACLU has now decided to pursue the matter in another venue by filing a lawsuit in state court, which requires administrative dismissal of the HRC investigation. Upon a cursory review of the recently filed complaint, it appears to be substantially similar to the HRC complaint that the ACLU publicized in April 2021. The Town believes the allegations in the lawsuit are similarly deficient and will respond and defend the case as appropriate.
In the meantime, the Town is looking forward and is focused on the work being done consistent with the Town Vision. This includes the formation of a permanent citizen advisory board, one of just a few hundred in the entire nation, that will be tasked with reviewing police complaint investigations. Called the Community Policing Advisory Review Board (CPARB), this board is now in its second year.
The Select Board has also strengthened its working relationship with the Bennington Police Department (BPD) in recent years. The Select Board and community receive a monthly written update from the BPD and the BPD attends a Select Board meeting quarterly to share information and take questions from the community.
In response to the allegation by ACLU staff attorney of “an established record of bias and abuse” ... the Town feels obligated to note that there is no such record of bias and abuse. To support this false narrative, ACLU director Lia Ernst claims “That was the conclusion of the Town’s own outside policing experts more than three years ago…” In fact, the IACP report to which she refers specifically states: “The singular focus for this study was to determine whether there was evidence of policies, procedures, or operational practices within the police department that created opportunities for unfair, discriminatory, or biased policing activities” and the study concludes with the key finding “To reemphasize, the review team found no policies that would encourage systemic bias in the organization.”
Ernst continues by incorrectly saying “yet fundamentally nothing has changed.” That is not true. in addition to the several examples already cited, over the past two and a half years the Town and the Police Department has been actively engaged with the community to address recommendations in the IACP report. That included hundreds of hours volunteered by over 40 community members to revisit, revise, and implement new policies and procedures, a year-long safety and equity task force team of 10 community members that lay the groundwork for the Community Policing Advisory Review Board (CPARB), development of new Vision and Mission statements based on community input and public meetings, redesign of the police website, and overhaul of the police complaints process.
These are just some of the initiatives the Town has implemented recently to ensure that Bennington is and remains a welcoming community for all. As another example, the Bennington Planning Commission is beginning a two-year process to update the Town Plan with a focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) issues. To facilitate this, the Commission will hire a DEI consultant to guide the Planning Commission in its efforts, including the development and implementation of a community outreach plan and DEI trainings.
While the Town feels it is necessary to correct the record, it is not for the purpose of slowing or stopping this ongoing effort to improve community policing in our town. Our focus is and remains our vision of Bennington as a welcoming, engaged, inclusive, and resilient community where everyone regardless of identity shares in our vitality and benefits from an outstanding quality of life. To this end, we embrace the opportunity to engage with all members of our community to work together on making that happen. We believe this to be vital work and we applaud the efforts of our community members and police department who have been diligently working towards this goal.