Crime and Justice

As Bennington forges ahead with bias training, critics wonder if it’s enough

A meeting to review a mission statement for the Bennington Police Department was held last week at the Fire Department to allow for social distancing. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

BENNINGTON — At an in-person meeting last week, about 40 residents sat in a semi-circle around a mission statement, projected onto a screen, drafted by the Bennington Police Department. 

Curtiss Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, sat in front of the screen on a stool he brought himself (“when you do enough of these things”) and looked toward the masked, socially distanced crowd. 

On Aug. 5, the town held a meeting called “Exploring our Vision and Mission for Bennington,” in which residents workshopped the BPD’s mission statement and an aspirational vision statement for the town. 

A moment earlier, Reed had asked the participants to identify concepts they want police officers to hold close as they go about their work. They typed answers into their phones, which then appeared on the screen: unbiased, community, safe, collaborative.

“Do you see any of those concepts reflected in this mission statement?” Reed asked the crowd, trying to find common ground. His question was followed by quiet echoes of the word “no.”

The new statement — along with the public’s invitation to weigh in on it — is part of the town’s first step toward fairer policing following the harassment of former Rep. Kiah Morris by area white supremacists, the alleged lack of protection she received, and a report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) whose conclusion pointed to a department-wide “warrior mentality.”

In March, VTDigger reported that little had changed — statewide or locally — a year after Morris, a Bennington resident, cited racial harassment as the reason she declined to run for a third term. Local leaders remain in their posts, despite a petition calling for the police chief and town manager to resign. 

Curtiss Reed leads a discussion about a mission statement for the Bennington Police Department. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

In June, the town of Bennington took its first substantial step toward reform, hiring Reed as a consultant to help implement 25 recommendations made by the IACP report. Reed has implemented similar training programs with eight out of 14 county sheriff departments in the state, along with many of the police departments.

Reed’s charge, to rebuild trust within marginalized members of Bennington and its police, is a difficult one. The report found that 40% of Bennington residents do not trust the police, and 20% have personally faced discrimination.

His program began in Bennington last month with a half-day workshop called Understanding Implicit Bias. Participation was mandatory for the police chief, police lieutenant, town manager, assistant town manager, community development director, and all members of the selectboard. 

Selectboard president Donald Campbell said the workshop was a success, and each of the workshop participants “did their homework,” including reading articles and watching TED Talks recommended by Reed.

“I thought Curtis did a phenomenal job of recasting what policing is to what policing could be,” he said, “and helping bring people along. The entire group, really.”

The program’s next step involves the presentation of annotated bibliographies from two three-person teams, hired by the town. One team has researched community policing, and another has researched best practices in assembling a citizens’ oversight committee. The bibliographies, which will highlight the teams’ research and notes, will be available Aug. 17. 

Jeannie Jenkins, selectboard vice chair and a chair of the selectboard’s work team for the community policing effort, said the teams cast a wide net with their research.

“It could span anything from engaging differently with mental health services in the community to how we put together policies that will guide the police department going forward,” she said. 

A week after the research teams complete their work, they’ll create a list of Bennington’s policies that need to be revised or updated. Reed said the teams are sorting through policies hailed by different organizations — the IACP has different model policies than the state police, for example. 

Donald Campbell
Donald Campbell, chair of the Bennington selectboard, stands outside his home in Bennington. Photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

“That will be an opportunity for community input,” Reed said.  

Though doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of implicit bias training — the Minneapolis Police Department went through a form of training in 2015, five years before a white officer killed George Floyd — the town has gone ahead with training with the belief that it will change the way police are perceived by Bennington residents. 

Campbell said he feels confident that Chief Paul Doucette and Town Manager Stuart Hurd will be able to regain the trust of the community.

“I think trust can be built with those two gentlemen, if people would allow it to happen,” he said. “I think all of us are learning, and all of us are evolving, especially on issues of race and bias and racism. That includes our police department, our government, our town staff, our citizens.”

In a letter published in the Bennington Banner last week, Campbell apologized to the police department for implying in a TV interview that racism exists in the department. 

“We have a great police department, great men and women who work there,” Campbell said during the TV interview, “and yet we still acknowledge that there is racism in our police system and it is important for us to really get to the bottom of that.” 

He later clarified that the word “our” referred to national systemic racism, not racism in Bennington. 

“My quote could be read as an accusation against our individual employees,” he wrote in the letter. “This was absolutely not my intention and to any of our employees who feel I disrespected them, I am very sorry.”

For a press release that followed the training, Doucette said working with Reed was helping to move the town and police forward. 

“Attending the training with Mr. Reed and improving our vision and mission for the Town of Bennington is instrumental in our future,” he said. “I look forward to our continued partnership and working toward achieving common goals.”

One of Reed’s main roles as a consultant is coaching Doucette and Lt. Camillo Grande.

“It’s not so much officer-wide, but it’s really around leadership,” Reed said. “These are different ways to look at and to approach the work that you’ve been doing, and in a way that would engender greater trust.”

A training on community policing is scheduled for all officers on Sept. 14 and 15. 

Is training enough?

Reed opened last Wednesday’s presentation with a quote from a well digger he met in the African nation of Niger: “You can’t dig a new well by digging an old well deeper.”

“What I find so exciting about being in Bennington is that you’ve decided not to dig the old well deeper, but to build a new well,” he told the crowd. 

Mia Schultz, who helped draft a Rights & Democracy petition asking Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette and Town Manager Stu Hurd to resign, said it was difficult for her to attend the meeting last week. She said she wanted more influence in the decision-making process that led to Reed’s hiring. 

“I needed to participate because, even if I don’t like the path that they’re taking, I can’t complain about their results unless I’m part of that process,” she said. “It was really difficult because I still maintain the position that they’re putting the cart before the horse.  The first step is to clean house.”

The town rejected the petition before it was even submitted. Campbell has said the town can’t fire employees for failing to meet guidelines that don’t yet exist.

Bennington Police Department. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

“Once we’ve clearly articulated what we expect, if the police chief or any member of the police department doesn’t live up to that expectation, then we can talk about dismissal,” he said. “But it doesn’t make sense to talk about dismissal before you even entirely describe what behavior you want to see.”

Tina Cook, who attended last week’s meeting, said she’s been pulled over more since she moved to Bennington than anywhere else she’s lived. She called the effort to reform a “good first step.”

“I don’t have any tickets, not even a parking ticket, but I get stopped regularly,” she said. “People are very unhappy with the status quo, and it has to change. Otherwise, why bother creating these flowery words and great mission statements?”

While Bennington received national media attention for former Rep. Kiah Morris’s case, a 2017 study by the University of Vermont suggests biases within the department run deep.

Analyzing statewide traffic stop data taken in 2015 from 29 police departments, authors reported that in Bennington, “the Black share of stops is almost 2.5 times greater than their share of the county population.” The trend extended to most officers in the department. 

Bennington’s stop data was one of the most “extreme” in the state, second only to Vergennes. 

The same study showed that Bennington police were five times more likely to search Black drivers than white drivers, while officers were less likely to find contraband in the cars of Black drivers that would lead to an arrest. 

Jay Diaz
Jay Diaz, ACLU Vermont senior staff attorney. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

In June, Shamel Alexander settled a racial profiling case against the department for $30,000. Alexander, 25, was riding in the back of a taxi in 2013 when undercover officer Andy Hunt misidentified him as a drug dealer wanted by police. Hunt searched Alexander’s bag and found almost half an ounce of heroin, landing Alexander with a 10-year prison sentence

Vermont’s Supreme Court ruled that Bennington police had no grounds to stop Alexander, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the conviction was vacated. 

“The ongoing problems with Bennington police show the limits of traditional police reform efforts and the need to more boldly reimagine the future of policing in this state,” Jay Diaz, senior staff attorney at ACLU of Vermont, said in a June release

As a person of color, Schultz feels urgency about making effective reforms quickly.

“They’re like, we have to be slow, we have to be calculated about it. In the meantime, my son just walked out to go do an errand for me. My heart is held up by strings every time I have to send him out the door,” she said. “We have all these white people determining what’s racist who have never walked a day in a Black person’s skin.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to a person who settled a racial profiling case against the Bennington Police Department. He is Shamel Alexander.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. She received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in Environmental Reporting for a series about agriculture and water quality in Addison County.

Email: [email protected]

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