hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues July 2020


Changing a culture of policing

Bennington weighs how to transform officers from warriors into guardians



The town of Bennington is crafting a series of reforms to its policing policies after a report issued this spring found the local department’s practices had sown “deep distrust” in the community it serves. Tony Israel file photo


Contributing writer


When a team hired to review Bennington’s police practices issued its report this spring, town officials took comfort in one key finding.

The report’s most important conclusion, Town Manager Stuart Hurd stressed, was that the local police department has no systemic racial bias. That conclusion, he said, wasn’t a surprise.
“We did expect that,” Hurd said.

But the 55-page report, compiled over eight months by a team from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, also concluded that the town’s police department lacked any policies to prevent racial bias – and that its practices have sown “deep distrust” among a significant portion of the community it’s supposed to protect. The report urged the town to move away from a “warrior mentality” it said is pervasive in the local police force.

Those findings have emboldened local activists and critics of the department, some of whom have gone so far as to call for the resignations of Hurd and Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette. The two leaders have served the town for decades, and critics say they are too entrenched to be able to carry out the reforms needed to change the culture of the local department.

“It’s not a personal vendetta,” said Mary Gerisch, the co-chairwoman of Rights and Democracy-Vermont, a statewide advocacy group that put up an online petition in May calling for reform of the Bennington police and the removal of Hurd and Doucette.

“Bennington is not the only town in Vermont with a town manager and police chief who have been in office for 30 years,” Gerisch said. “We want to expand awareness to Vermont that we need a cultural shift.”

Now, against the backdrop of nationwide protest over police brutality and racist police practices that began with the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Bennington is being joined by lots of other states and municipalities that have begun to review the structure and priorities of their police forces.

Last month, the town hired Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to lead a six-month process aimed at implementing the reforms recommended in the police chiefs association’s study. An online meeting in late June was the first step in that process, which is expected to include a series of workshops for town and police officials and residents in the months ahead.


Racial harassment sparks review
The review of Bennington police practices by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP, was the indirect result of a state inquiry that began after the resignation of state Rep. Kiah Morris in 2018. Morris, D-Bennington, was the only black woman serving in the Vermont Legislature and was running unopposed for a third term when she abruptly abandoned her campaign, saying she had been the target of death threats and harassment by white supremacists for more than a year.

Morris and her husband, James Lawton, have charged that Bennington police belittled their complaints and botched investigations into incidents of harassment. Town officials have disputed those claims.

State Attorney General T.J. Donovan reviewed Morris’ case and the town’s handling of it in a written report issued early last year. He concluded that Morris and her family were the victims of a series of property crimes and online messages that were “clearly racist and extremely offensive.” But he concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to identify any suspects in the property crimes – and that the online comments were likely protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

Donovan turned down requests from the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP to look into how local police handled evidence in Morris’ case. Instead, he recommended that the town commission an independent assessment of its police department. The town followed up by hiring the IACP to conduct the review.

Morris’ case wasn’t the only instance in recent years in which Bennington police have been accused of mishandling cases involving race.

In 2016, the Vermont Supreme Court threw out the drug conviction of Shamel Alexander, who was stopped and searched while riding in a taxi in Bennington. Alexander, who is black, claimed the town police stopped him on the basis of race and searched him illegally. Although the search turned up drugs and Alexander was convicted of possession of heroin, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled unanimously that his rights had been violated and overturned the conviction. Last month, the town Selectboard agreed to pay $30,000 to settle Alexander’s civil suit.

Also in 2016, a study by researchers at the University of Vermont and Cornell University found that the proportion of black drivers pulled over in Bennington traffic stops was nearly 2.5 times higher than their representation in the county population. Black drivers were more likely than white drivers to be searched, but less likely to be found with illegal cargo, the study concluded. After some law enforcement officials criticized the study as methodologically flawed, a second study by the same researchers in 2018 confirmed the original findings.


‘Deep distrust’
The International Association of Chiefs of Police dispatched a four-member team to Bennington in September to begin a comprehensive review of the local police force, looking specifically at whether the department was racially biased. The team interviewed and held focus group meetings with town and police department leaders, about half of the department’s 36 sworn and civilian staff, and a range of community members. The team also reviewed the department’s policies, procedures and arrest data and studied public perception of the police.

The team presented its 55-page report on April 20. It found no systemic racial bias in the department’s polices and procedures, but also no policies that would prevent bias. The report also said Bennington police had not compiled data that could have allowed a clearer view of how the department handles race.

The IACP team found that the department focused on traffic enforcement as a way to reduce crashes and find criminal activity. Although the report said this is an effective strategy, it pointed out that this approach can alienate parts of the community -- especially those who are keenly aware that in many cases elsewhere, routine traffic stops have ended in the deaths of black drivers.

“Over time, Bennington’s police practices have sown deep distrust between parts of the community and the department, undermining the agency’s law enforcement legitimacy,” the report said.

In a table showing responses to survey questions about perceptions of trust and fairness, 70 percent of respondents said the local police department had never discriminated against them. But 30 percent said it had, from “a little” to “a great extent.” Most respondents, 77.6 percent, said they had a positive perception of the department from “a little” to “to a great extent,” but 22.4 percent said their perception was not at all positive. Almost a quarter said they did not trust the department at all.

Although responses to that part of the survey represent only 4.2 percent of Bennington’s population of 8,800, the report noted that interviews and focus groups also revealed a strong sense of a division between those who receive police services (“good citizens”) and those who do not (“bad citizens”). And despite the department’s emphasis on traffic safety, community members were more concerned with illegal narcotics, safe schools and quality-of-life issues such as property crimes, and crimes against people.

Other troubling findings were that almost no one, even employees of the department, knew what the department’s mission statement was or where to find it. Nor were officers or the public aware of how to file a complaint against the department. The department also had no protocol for reporting hate crimes.

“These are serious deficiencies that are having adverse effects on trust and legitimacy,” the report said, adding that the department would benefit by shifting from a “warrior” to a “guardian” mentality and actively building relationships with the community.

The report concluded with 25 recommendations to be addressed by the police department itself, the town government and members of the public. Some, such as updating the police website, could be done immediately. Others would require action by the town Select Board and community involvement to research and recommend changes.


Weighing a new approach
Hurd, the town manager, said many of the report’s findings and recommendations didn’t surprise him.

“I expected a healthy number of recommendations,” he said. “The police department is rural and not up on all the latest techniques.”

But he added that the number of people who were unhappy with the department “surprised me a little bit.”

“We pride ourselves on being in touch with the people we serve,” Hurd said. “When people’s perceptions become reality, we have a row to hoe to regain the trust we thought we had.”
The “warrior mentality” began overtaking police departments after 9/11, when local police departments were caught up in the effort to prevent any additional terrorist attacks, Hurd said. The sense of being under siege continued with the rise of the opioid epidemic and officers’ concerns about facing off against armed drug traffickers.

“We need to move away from tactical policing to community policing,” Hurd said.
Bennington’s police budget for the current fiscal year is $3.8 million out of a total town budget of $13.3 million.

“I think it’s being spent appropriately,” Hurd said. “Are there other ways we could spend it? I don’t have a feel for a new direction and what it might cost us.”

Doing more community policing could require more or fewer personnel and different training, he said.

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette did not respond to a request in late June to be interviewed for this story. But in a guest column published earlier this spring in the local daily paper, the Bennington Banner, he criticized the team from the police chiefs association for failing to contact all of the community leaders he had recommended – and for not interviewing all of the department’s employees.

“Unfortunately, the report does not appear to fully capture much of the great work of the Bennington Police,” Doucette wrote.

Doucette pointed out that his department has undertaken a number of community initiatives, such as delivering donated food or toys to the needy.

“We offer a balance of community policing and enforcement,” he wrote.
Doucette said the department would approach all of the report’s recommendations with “an open mind” and had already taken some actions. By late June, for example, the department’s home page had replaced a photo of police in tactical gear with an image of a snowy road. The website now prominently displays the department’s mission and guiding principles and has added “compliments or concerns” to the dropdown menu under the “contact us” button.


Protection for all?
Gerisch, of Rights and Democracy-Vermont, said she found no surprises in the report.
“I believe a lot of people weren’t heard,” she said.

Although the team from the police chiefs association held several public forums, few people showed up, she said. But when her group organized an invitation-only meeting with the team, Gerisch said, more than 50 turned out. Even then, some people were afraid to speak privately with team members because of fears the team could inadvertently share something with the police “and the person would suffer,” she said.

Members of racial and ethnic minorities aren’t the only people in Bennington who distrust police, Gerisch added. The list includes poor people, those with mental health or substance abuse problems, members of the LGBTQ community, people who are disabled, and “really anyone who’s a little bit different,” she said.

People who feel they are at society’s margins may hesitate to call the police, even to report a crime, because of fear that the police will harass them, “particularly if someone has a previous offense, even if the case was dismissed,” she said.

“It has to do with a lot more than the police,” Gerisch said “But it starts with the police.”
After the town hired Reed last month to guide the process of implementing the IACP report’s recommendations, Gerisch attended the first meeting, held via video conference, on June 24.
If Reed and his organization “really collaborate with the community, then we can improve things,” she said.

Over the next six months, Reed will organize workshops for town and police officials and residents, facilitate professional development and coaching for town and police officials, and help create two three-person committees to research civilian review boards and community policing practices in rural communities.

Although Gerisch took part in the June 24 session, she said she’d “like to see someone more vulnerable than me join a committee.”

She said it’s possible the department can change even if Hurd and Doucette stay on. But she said her experience has been that “a culture is hard to change.

“Leaders don’t recognize it exists,” Gerisch said. “We need systemic change nationwide. People are struggling.”

The assessment by the police chiefs association cost the town $66,000.
Reed is charging $21,700 for his organization’s work, plus $3,000 to compensate the people who will serve on the committees. Anonymous donors came forward to cover $20,000 of the total, and Hurd said the town will find the remaining $4,700 in its budget.


States push police reforms
The nationwide push for policing reforms has been playing out at the state level in Vermont, as well as in Massachusetts and New York.

Just before Vermont lawmakers recessed on June 26, both houses of the Legislature unanimously passed S.219, a bill that establishes community policing and a “guardian mentality” as the state’s expectation for law enforcement.

Among other provisions, the bill would require law enforcement agencies in Vermont to collect data on race in traffic stops and use-of-force incidents or lose state funding. The bill also would effectively prohibit the use of chokeholds and require officers to intervene if another officer tries to apply one. It establishes penalties for officers who cause severe injury or death through a prohibited restraint, and it would require state police to have and use body cameras by August 2021.

State Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Gov. Phil Scott has not yet signed the bill but is expected to do so.

The Legislature is scheduled to resume its session on Aug. 25 and will continue to address issues between law enforcement and Vermont’s communities of color, Sears said. Before adjourning, the Senate, at the House’s request, passed a bill to create a statewide policy on the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers.

“It will be taken up by the House later,” Sears said.
Also under discussion are revisions to the state’s “justifiable homicide” law, which shields law officers from prosecution in certain circumstances.

“The language is very archaic,” Sears said.
In June, New York lawmakers passed four bills that allow disclosure of law enforcement disciplinary records, ban chokeholds by law enforcement officers, prohibit 911 calls based on a person’s race, and appoint the state attorney general as independent prosecutor for deaths where police are involved.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also signed an executive order requiring every local government with a police force to do a comprehensive review of its procedures and adopt specific reform plans in partnership with the community. Municipalities have until April 1 to submit their plans or risk losing state funding.

Locally, activists in Saratoga Springs have renewed calls for a civilian review board that could investigate complaints against the city police department – an idea that was raised after an unarmed black man was fatally injured while fleeing from police in 2013. In that case, police said Darryl Mount Jr. fell from scaffolding in an alley behind a building, though there were no witnesses to support this account. The police chief at the time, Gregory Veitch, who has since retired, told reporters his department was conducting an internal investigation of the incident. But in a sworn deposition several years later, he admitted there was no such investigation.

State officials in Massachusetts are considering several initiatives to improve policing, including state certification of police and peace officers, requiring independent investigation of all police-related deaths, limiting police use of force, collection of data on race when people are arrested or subjected to police force, and creation of a state commission on structural racism.

Massachusetts is one of only six states that does not have a Peace Office Standards and Training program. Vermont certifies law enforcement officers through the state’s Criminal Justice Training Council, which runs the Vermont Police Academy. In New York, the Municipal Police Training Council sets training standards for police officers.