BENNINGTON — Two former town residents filed a complaint Wednesday with the Vermont Human Rights Commission against the Bennington Select Board, saying town officials publicized private information about them in retaliation for their filing complaints of racially-motivated policing against the Bennington Police Department.
The board’s action was “illegal” and reflected systemic racial discrimination in Bennington, said Jay Diaz, senior staff attorney at American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. The organization is representing complainants Joel Fowler, who is Black, and his girlfriend, Cassandra Keating.
“This case is not a one-off,” Diaz said during a virtual press briefing on Wednesday morning. “It is representative of what happens in Bennington — the systemic nature of discrimination in Bennington and also the systemic nature of discrimination throughout Vermont.”
He said the select board’s action, which stems from its policy, seemed intended to discourage others from reporting Bennington police misconduct and discrimination.
The Bennington Select Board declined to comment for this story, citing the active Human Rights Commission case.
CITIZEN COMPLAINTS AGAINST BPD
Fowler, Keating and their daughter moved to Bennington in April 2020, according to their HRC complaint. It said they left town that summer because of their negative experience with Bennington police and leaders.
Soon after coming to town, Fowler began getting one police citation after another for “menial things,” Tabitha Moore, founding president of the Rutland Area NAACP, said at the news briefing. For instance, reporters were told, Fowler received 12 tickets in 22 days.
The couple also “repeatedly saw Bennington police officers surveilling them at various locations,” according to a portion of the 15-page complaint.
Keating, in a letter ready by Moore, said: “The Bennington Police Department targeted us, because Joel is a Black man.” The couple didn’t attend the press briefing.
Keating and Fowler had filed formal complaints against Bennington police. Town Manager Stuart Hurd forwarded BPD Chief Paul Doucette’s findings to the Bennington Select Board.
In a meeting last July, the select board dismissed the couple’s complaints, saying it didn’t find any criminal, civil or departmental violations. But the board said it found some of the BPD techniques concerning and recommended the police department re-evaluate or eliminate them.
At the same meeting, which was broadcast on CAT-TV and streamed online, the board publicized police body camera and dashboard camera video related to the couple’s complaints. It also made associated BPD reports available online.
Keating said this exposed their personal information: license plate numbers, vehicle description, addresses. “Everything they could find, they made public,” she said in her letter.
“The Select Board literally ran this family out of town,” said Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP. “They put their lives at risk, including that of their small child, all to set the example to the rest of the community not to complain. These people asked for help, and instead they received retaliation.”
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION CASE
Diaz said the select board violated state law that says people who complain against government entities about abuse of power or illegal conduct shall not have their identities revealed without their consent.
Keating and Fowler are now asking the state Human Rights Commission to look into two matters: whether the Bennington Select Board violated Vermont’s anti-discrimination law and whether the board’s policy of disclosing complainants’ personal information is illegal and discriminatory.
The ACLU is asking the commission to accept its clients’ complaint, which Diaz said would then be followed by an investigation. He said the commission usually takes less than a year to reach a finding, a process that includes collecting documentary evidence and testimony.
Meanwhile, the ACLU and the Rutland Area NAACP are asking the board to change its policy. They mean withholding the identity and personal information of complainants from police officers who are subjects of complaints, from anyone not involved in the internal investigation and from the public.
“They can do that on their own — tomorrow if they so wish,” Diaz said.
ACLU and the NAACP are also asking the board to follow the recommendations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police: create a citizen review board, a body independent of town officials that would have subpoena power and oversight of town police.
“They need to stop trying and just do it, and listen to the people who are most impacted,” Schultz said, “not decide that they are the only ones who know what to do.”
Since the IACP report was released last spring, the select board has assumed the role of police review board.
Schultz said Bennington needs to reassess its longstanding leadership — such as with the select board, town office and police department — and decide if alternatives are needed to achieve necessary change.
BENNINGTON TOWN OFFICIALS
Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins, when reached by phone early Wednesday afternoon, said the town’s attorney has advised the board not to comment on the case because Human Rights Commission cases are confidential and it is ongoing.
Jenkins, who was elected head of the board on Friday, said the complaint has been received by the town attorney. She said she has not seen it.
Donald Campbell, the previous board chairman who has left the board, also declined to comment on Fowler and Keating’s complaint. But he said the board “struggled with that whole situation a lot” and had sought advice from various people.
In an earlier interview, after the select board publicized Fowler and Keating’s complaints, Campbell said the board decided on this course of action to promote transparency and trust.
The Vermont State Police Advisory Committee, which the board consulted, had recommended that in “a situation where there are elements of low trust in the community, it’s better to be fully transparent and release what you’ve got,” Campbell said.
Board members’ discussions included whether to redact names, concerned that public exposure might discourage some people from lodging complaints. Campbell said this could be an unintended consequence of the board’s desire to be transparent.
He said watching the police video would also help community members understand how the board reached its decision to uphold the complaints’ dismissal.
Hurd, the town manager, and BPD Lt. Camillo Grande declined to comment as well. BPD Chief Doucette was off on Wednesday, Grande said.
Fowler and Keating’s advocates emphasized that the couple’s experience in Bennington echoed the experience of other racial minorities who have moved to Vermont.
“Vermont does not have a problem with recruiting Black and brown people to the state,” Moore said. “We have a problem with the way they’re treated once they come.”