Group of Bennington residents push for board to oversee police

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BENNINGTON — With Bennington close to hiring a consultant to review Bennington Police Department policies and practices, some residents are calling for greater transparency and the creation of a police oversight board.

Logan Snow, who spoke to the Select Board on Monday, raised questions about the pending study and urged complete transparency about the report based on the review.

Snow said she represented a group of residents who have been meeting to talk about "concerns over the transparency and lack of oversight for the Bennington Police Department."

She said they believe the department "has been operated without oversight for too long, and this has created an environment of distrust," adding that information about the department typically goes to the Select Board but "citizens are given minimal chance to weigh in."

Currently, the board is awaiting responses to a request for proposals to conduct a review of the BPD, with study proposals due by Friday. Such a review was approved by the

board after Attorney General T.J. Donovan recommended one by an independent entity for the department amid criticism from civil rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Donovan's comments came after online racial harassment and alleged threats that led in September 2018 to the resignation of former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington, who is African American.

She and others were critical of the BPD for not arresting anyone while the harassment continued over two fall election cycles in 2016 and 2018.

Police Chief Paul Doucette has maintained that the department thoroughly investigated all of the complaints involving harassment or threats that were reported by Morris. He said police, as well as the State's Attorney's Office, did not find enough evidence to press criminal charges.

Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell told Snow that the town has retained Brattleboro's Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to help ensure an equitable RFP process.

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Reed will help prepare the RFP and identify qualified firms, said Town Manager Stuart Hurd, and help with the selection of a vendor.

Snow said some residents have felt "in the dark" about the RFP process and are questioning "whether there is going to be a civilian oversight committee that will be a part of this. So people feel there is a lack of transparency."

At one point, she said there is concern the review report will contain "blacked out" sections the public won't be allowed to read.

"So, in very general terms, I think this board is really committed to transparency," Campbell said. "We really are committed to a true inquiry into our police force and where we can take it that will be best for the whole group. And that is why we just didn't try to do it ourselves. We hired a professional [Reed]."

Reed "does very good work. He is very well known in the field," Campbell said.

Responding to Snow's request for an oversight committee, Campbell said the board has received the group's feedback and will take it under consideration. He added that the review process will be "a truly inquisitive report into how we can do things the best we can."

"I think we are really hiring someone to help us figure out how to engage the public," said board member Bill Scully, adding the town is "only at the beginning

stages."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal.

Twitter: @BB_therrien


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