BENNINGTON — The state Human Rights Commission has agreed to investigate accusations that the Bennington Select Board retaliated and racially discriminated against a biracial couple who complained about their treatment by Bennington police, the complainants’ legal representatives said Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the commission confirmed Friday that it is accepting a formal complaint filed Wednesday by Joel Fowler, a Black man, and his girlfriend, Cassandra Keating.
The former Bennington residents allege that town leaders publicized confidential information about them after they complained of racially-motivated policing by the local police department — board action that they described as retaliatory and illegal. The couple said this was also discriminatory because it discourages other Black people from reporting police misconduct.
Fowler and Keating said they fled Bennington after staying in town for only a few months. They reportedly left once the Select Board released unredacted videos and police reports about them during a July 22 meeting, where the board dismissed their complaints.
ACLU of Vermont’s spokeswoman, S. Beth Nolan, said the commission told them on Friday that it “will be assigning an investigator and mailing out the complaint to Bennington.”
The Human Rights Commission declined to comment. Executive Director Bor Yang said HRC cases are confidential “unless and until a final determination is made by the Commissioners that discrimination occurred.”
ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Jay Diaz, co-counsel in the case, earlier said the commission usually takes less than a year to reach a finding.
Fowler and Keating are asking the commission to rule that the Select Board unlawfully retaliated against them by publicizing information that should have remained confidential as well as to declare the underlying board policy unlawfully discriminatory. The couple is also asking for just compensation and reimbursement for costs in filing the complaint.
The ACLU has described their experience as a reflection of “the systemic nature of discrimination” in Bennington and throughout Vermont.
Town officials declined to comment, saying the law requires them not to discuss an open HRC case.
Though Yang wouldn’t discuss the Bennington case, she spoke generally about the commission’s investigative work. It begins when she decides whether the agency should investigate a complaint, and it could end in various ways.
When a complaint, on its face, alleges a violation of Vermont’s anti-discrimination laws, it is assigned to a staff attorney who will serve as investigator. The investigation includes interviews and an “exhaustive” review of documents, Yang said.
When asked if the commission can review discussions in meetings that were closed to the public, Yang said that would depend on the laws that govern the situation. Generally, she said, they have subpoena power and the right to request information critical to the investigation.
According to Fowler and Keating’s HRC filing, the Bennington Select Board discussed the Bennington Police Department’s internal investigation about their complaints in closed-door meetings on July 2 and July 6.
The couple said that shortly after they moved to town last April, they experienced racially motivated targeting and harassment by Bennington police. This reportedly included Fowler’s getting 12 tickets in 22 days and an officer’s telling their landlord that Fowler is involved in criminal activity. Keating has said they were targeted because Fowler is Black.
CASE IS CLOSED
Once an HRC attorney completes an investigation, he or she submits a report to the commissioners on whether discrimination occurred. The five commissioners, based on a simple majority vote, decide whether to accept the preliminary recommendation. If the commissioners find that discrimination occurred, the report becomes publicly accessible.
A complaint, however, could be resolved by the parties at any point, Yang said. This can happen in a variety of ways, such as the complaint being withdrawn, the commission deciding to dismiss the case or the complainants and defendants entering into a settlement agreement.
If the complaint is resolved before the commissioners make their finding, the case remains confidential, Yang said.
If the commissioners find that discrimination occurred, Yang said she has six months to negotiate a settlement with the parties. This often includes how the settlement agreement will be enforced.
The HRC also has authority to file a court case. If illegal discrimination is proven to a judge or jury, the court may impose fines, monetary damages, costs and attorneys’ fees against the defendant, according to the commission’s 2020 annual report. The court proceedings could also impose measures to avoid further violations of law.
When asked if parties to an ongoing case are barred from making public comments, Yang said the decision is up to them and their attorneys.