A nearly two-year investigation into the Bennington Police Department has found that officers failed to adequately investigate alleged threats against former state legislator Kiah Morris because of its racism and prejudice.
Bennington police officers endangered Morris’ safety by withholding crucial information from her and her family about a white supremacist who’d been targeting Morris on social media, according to a 54-page report from the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
And while the police department worked swiftly to disarm a man who’d unnerved white residents in Bennington back in 2013, according to the report, it failed to take similar measures against local white supremacist Max Misch, despite his documented history of violence.
“This investigation recommends that the Commission find reasonable grounds to believe that the (Bennington Police Department) discriminated against [Kiah Morris] … and [her husband] James Lawton, on the basis of race and color,” the report said.
Morris, who’s since moved out of Bennington, gave her first public comments about the Human Rights Commission investigation during a press conference Tuesday.
“I distrust law enforcement and have lost confidence in that institution and its representatives to act with integrity,” Morris said. “I feel less secure now with the passage of time and the well-documented escalation of racialized incidents since our departure there.”
Tabitha Moore, former president of the Rutland Area chapter of the NAACP, said Morris’s experience in Bennington has resonated loudly with people of color across Vermont.
“The entire situation has only served to highlight the numerous flaws and systemic barriers that plague Vermont, and sends a loud and clear message to Black Vermonters that our lives are worth less than the salaries of those we entrust with our care,” Moore said.
The town of Bennington issued a 16-page response refuting the commission’s findings.
While Morris has “undoubtedly been the target of abhorrent racist online harassment carried out by at least one known bigoted individual in the town of Bennington,” the town said, “there is no basis” for concluding that its police department violated Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act.
Bennington Select Board Chair Jeannie Jenkins said in an interview with VPR Tuesday that the Morris case highlights the “limitations” of the legal system, when it comes to addressing racist speech.
In light of those limitations, Jenkins said, the broader “community” needs to do a better job making residents of color feel safe and welcome in Bennington.
“We’ve learned a lot about maybe how to be … a little braver, more willing to step up and say, ‘this isn’t right,’” Jenkins said.
Morris was the only Black woman serving in the Vermont House of Representatives when she resigned her post in September of 2018. She stepped down after more than two years of online harassment from Misch, who directed racist comments at Morris on several social media accounts.
Morris and Lawton on numerous occasions reported concerns to police about the threat they believed Misch posed to their family. In an interview with VPR’s Vermont Edition in 2018, shortly after she announced her decision to leave elected office, Morris said police showed little regard for her family’s safety.
“There was just some particular things that had happened that we went to law enforcement to gain counsel on, and try to seek support with, and what was just happening was that — nothing, to be quite frank,” Morris said. “It was weeks without an answer, it was weeks without a response, it was a shoulder shrug and a ‘good luck.’”
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette refuted Morris’ assessment at the time. He said members of his department devoted considerable resources to investigating complaints lodged by Morris and Lawton.
And the town now says that the Human Rights Commission’s report omitted almost entirely the police department’s rigorous efforts to determine whether Morris was the victim of bias-motivated criminal harassment.
In May of 2019, Morris and Lawton filed a formal complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission. The couple alleged that the Bennington Police Department violated Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act by failing “to effectively respond to calls for assistance or act in a manner that reflected care or concern about their well-being because of their race and color.”
After a lengthy investigation that included interviews with eight Bennington Police officers, including Chief Paul Doucette, the Human Rights Commission found that the department’s actions “endangered the complainants’ safety” and “deprived the complainants of information they could have used to seek a protective order” against Misch.
Key to those findings, according to the report, was the department’s failure to inform Morris and Lawton that a local therapist called police to report that Misch, who at the time owned a semi-automatic rifle and several 30-round magazines, might pose a danger to the couple.
Town officials say officers were under no legal duty to inform Morris about that report.
Morris and Lawton withdrew their complaint last month, before the full Human Rights Commission voted on whether to accept the results of the investigation, after reaching a settlement with the town of Bennington.
The select board agreed to pay the couple $137,500. The town also agreed to issue a public apology to Morris and Lawton, “for the harms and trauma they encountered while residing in Bennington.”
“No one in Bennington should feel unsafe or unprotected,” Jeanne Jenkins, the select board chair, said in late April. “We have listened to Kiah Morris, James Lawton and their family in mediation. It is clear that Kiah, James and their family felt unsafe and unprotected by the town of Bennington.”
The decision rendered by the Vermont Human Rights Commission hinges on differences in the way the Bennington Police Department responded to and investigated two high-profile cases in the southern Vermont town.
The first case is from 2013 and centers on Steven Davis, a Mount Anthony High School teacher who, according to the commission’s report, “had been reported by a neighbor as having been seen carrying a gun case to his car and as having made threats to others in the community.”
The report said the neighbor, who was white, told police that Davis had been “acting odd,” and that he’d seen Davis put a black gun case in his car.
That same day, police contacted Davis’ wife, who was also white. She said she was afraid of her husband, and wanted to seek an order of protection against him. Upon serving that order to Davis, according to the commission’s report, police seized his Bushmaster AR-15 .223 rifle, and two fully-loaded 30-round magazines.
Bennington police also began scrutinizing videos posted by Davis on Youtube, in which he expressed his anger with the school district, and his intent to visit the district’s central office to articulate his concerns.
A police officer who viewed that video said that, “Depending on an individual's interpretation of the words spoken by Davis, one could find the video threatening.”
According to a police report from the case, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette “determined that it would be prudent to try to convince Davis to go to the emergency room for a mental health evaluation.”
Doucette invited Davis to the police station, and succeeded in getting Davis to voluntarily go to the ER for an evaluation. Health care providers there determined Davis should be sent to a mental health facility, where he would later spend two days receiving inpatient services.
The Human Rights Commission says Bennington police’s handling of the Davis case stands in stark contrast to the manner in which they responded to concerns about Max Misch.
Between the summer of 2016 and fall of 2018, Morris and Lawton on numerous occasions reported to police the fear that Misch had instilled with his racist social media posts about Morris.
They also reported a 2016 incident at a local polling place in which Misch allegedly stared at Morris in a menacing manner — an allegation later corroborated by local residents who witnessed the interaction.
In late 2016, Morris won an order of protection against Misch. In testimony during the court hearing in which she sought that order, she described the severity of her concern about Misch to a Bennington County judge:
“We've had to change all of our home security, we — I’ve had to change our normal patterns of where we go. There's stores that I don't go to by myself because he's there. There's places in my community I don't walk my dog because he lives near there. I’ve even had to take self-defense and power training classes to prepare myself to have self-defense.”
Morris wasn’t the only person who believed Misch posed a danger to her family.
In 2018, other community members called Bennington police to express their concern about the threat Misch posed to Morris and Lawton.
The first came from a local therapist, named Joan Fish, who was treating Misch’s ex-wife, Lisa Shapiro.
Fewer than three years prior, Misch was criminally charged with assault after strangling Shapiro during an argument at their home. Fish told police that Shapiro confided during a therapy session that Misch was in possession of a semi-automatic gun and several 30-round magazines.
Fish told police Shapiro also told her that Misch is a white supremacist who “has issues” with Morris and Lawton.
Bennington Police Cpl. Ross Harrington called Shapiro to follow up on Fish’s concern. According to a police report from that conversation, Shapiro told police she was indeed “concerned” about Misch, “due to Max being a white supremacist/narcissist.”
Shapiro agreed to visit the police department the next morning to speak with Doucette and Bennington Det. Sgt. Larry Cole.
During that interview, according to a transcript, Shapiro recounted the assault for which Misch was charged:
“He’s a big guy. He just took his hand out of the blue and took me by the neck pushed me down the bathroom door I ended up falling to the floor and then he, he took both hands and I was looking up at him and I’m like I have three daughters … I can’t believe it’s going to end like this and I saw his face and he had no - he had that blank stare and he was just like like … slowly like tighter and tighter … I just thought that was it ... it was over I figured I was going to die”
Cole asked Shapiro why she was concerned for Morris, as it relates to Misch. She responded: “Because she’s Black, you kidding?”
Doucette asked Shapiro if Misch had ever made any direct threats about Morris or Lawton. Shapiro said he had not.
Doucette then asked Shapiro if she thought Misch was a “ticking time bomb.”
Shapiro responded: “I would say that’s true.”
Doucette: “What happens when the clock strikes 12?”
Shapiro: “He shoots people … Is he a ticking time bomb? I think he’s almost preparing for that.”
Cole: “How do we help him?”
Shapiro: “He needs intensive therapy … He needs intervention.”
Later that same day, Doucette and Cole visited Misch’s residence and had a conversation that was not recorded. According to a police report summarizing their visit, Misch invited the officers into his home:
“Max was very cordial and seemed at ease once we told him he was not in trouble with us. We did ask him what he had for firearms and he told us that he had two handguns and a rifle. During the time we were with Max, we did not get a sense he was mentally unstable and he was able to keep direct eye contact with us and he answered any questions we asked of him. He did tell us that he sees a therapist when he feels a need for that type of interaction. He also told us that there was no reason for us to be concerned that others were in any type of danger relating to his own actions. After a few minutes we did not see the need to prolong our visit and we left Max' s apartment. This ends my involvement with Lisa [Shapiro] and Max Misch.”
No one from the Bennington Police Department notified Morris or Lawton about the concerns Fish and Shapiro had expressed for their safety. The Bennington Police Department also failed to disclose the information to Attorney General TJ Donovan, who was conducting his own investigation into Misch at the time, and had asked the department for all files and records related to its contacts with Misch.
According to the Human Rights Commission, the factual elements of Misch’s case were even more alarming than those in that of Steven Davis. And yet while police notified community members about Davis’ concerning behavior, seized Davis’ weapons, and personally drove him to the hospital for a mental health evaluation, according to the report, they did none of those things with Misch.
“Doucette’s failure to immediately disclose the interview with Shapiro and Misch to Morris and Lawton deprived them of the right to seek a protective order which almost certainly would have led to a court order that Misch surrender his weapons or perhaps even led to an effort by the Attorney General to petition for an extreme risk order under the statute whose genesis was partially due to Davis’s case,” the commission’s report says. “Both Misch and Davis had AR-15s and more than one fully loaded 30 round magazine. The level of threat in Misch’s case was potentially even greater because Shapiro told Doucette and Cole more than once that Misch was upset and frustrated that the magazines were not fitting the gun. Misch of course was also driven by extreme racism and hatred of complainants.”
And the commission concluded that Morris’ race was a relevant factor for the disparate police responses in those cases.
“Purposefully withholding information and failing to fully cooperate with a prosecutorial office is profoundly contrary to one of the central roles of law enforcement and so far outside widely accepted norms that an objective person could find a rational inference of discrimination,” the commission said. “That inference becomes irrefutable discrimination if it cannot be rebutted by a legitimate non-discriminatory reason.”
The town of Bennington said differences in the way its police department handled the two cases highlighted by the Human Rights Commission have nothing to do with the race of the complainants.
The town characterized Davis as being in the midst of a “mental breakdown” when police intervened. And they said he had been “threatening his family, neighbors and the school district.”
That Davis’ antipathy was directed toward the school district was especially troubling, the town said. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting had occurred just weeks earlier, and “the entire country,” the town said, “was still in shock and on edge regarding school violence.”
“Because the cases are not materially similar, and the context and surrounding circumstances are starkly different, they cannot be used in a disparate treatment analysis,” the town argued.
While Davis’ behavior “escalated” after police first responded to complaints about his allegedly threatening behavior, the town said police turned up no evidence of criminal behavior, or intent to engage in criminal behavior, during their interview with Misch.
The town also said Doucette was under no obligation to inform Morris about Fish and Shapiro’s concerns about Misch, because Vermont courts have ruled that law enforcement officers “have no special duty of care to a specific person beyond that extended to the general public.”
And while Shapiro indicated her concern to police about Misch’s mental state, racist ideology and fixation on guns, the town said she also told officers that she did not view Misch as “dangerous,” and did not express any “immediate fear” for herself or Morris.
Asked Tuesday whether she thinks Doucette is the right person to lead the Bennington Police Department, select board chair Jeannie Jenkins said, “I think we have an excellent chief of police.”
“I really have no concerns at all about the way that Paul has led the department,” Jenkins said. “I believe that in the same way the select board is learning, the community is learning, the police department is learning.”
Jenkins said the town has formed a “community policing” working group in the wake of an independent review of police practices in Bennington.
She added that the town additionally enlisted the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity to work on issues of racial bias and equity in the police department. She said Doucette and other members of the department have been enthusiastic participants.
“There has been nothing but total willingness and eagerness to learn and change on the part of the police department,” she said.
The town is in now in the process of creating a police oversight body, according to Jenkins, and plans to work with the Vermont chapter of the ACLU to include residents in that effort.
Jenkins said she and other town officials acknowledge that many residents of color have lost confidence and trust in the police department. She said she’s committed to earning it back.
“I do think the more we can continue to have conversation as a community, the closer we will get to rebuilding the trust that has been lost,” Jenkins said. “I do think it will take awhile, and it’s totally worth it. And it’s something that I think we are committed to doing by continuing to invite the community in, as much as they want to be involved.”
Morris said Tuesday that Bennington won’t be able to address the systemic issues spotlighted in the commission’s investigation under existing leadership in the town’s government and police force.
“No changes in staffing or penalties for the town manager or the chief of police has emerged from this experience, which my family feels is necessary to begin on a meaningful path toward real change in Bennington,” Morris said.
Mia Schultz, who is president of the Rutland area chapter of the NAACP and a Bennington resident, said the commission’s report sends an important message to the community. But she noted the report hasn’t resulted in “accountability.”
“Accountability is when there’s consequences for one’s performances and actions," Schultz said. "It’s essential for a society. Without it, it’s difficult to get people to assume ownership of their own actions."
Schultz said ongoing efforts at police reform in Bennington won’t bear fruit unless town officials bring new leadership to the police force.
“We don’t have any trust for them anymore, so it doesn’t matter if they change a policy, which is what they’re currently doing, because it will still be the same people approving those polices,” Schultz said. “It’ll still be the people who will be interpreting how those policies are held and what they do.”
Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP, said Vermont won’t be able to tackle issues of white supremacy and systemic racism until white Vermonters make it a priority.
“This case represents the case of so many Vermonters of color, especially Black Vermonters, who, like Ms. Morris and the Morris family, have had to face systemic discrimination across the state in what feels like a struggle that is day in and day out, truly never ending,” Gillom said. “We as a state are not ready to face the realization that a great many people of color in our state live in a state of reality that is oppressive, a state where every system connected to justice seemingly works in lockstep with one another to dampen and even intentionally silence Black and Brown pain. That is what we have seen here.”
Clarification 6:13 p.m. 5/11/21: This story was updated to more accurately characterize the findings of the Human Rights Commission investigation.
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