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Human Rights Complaint Alleges Retaliation And Racial Discrimination In Bennington

A police department building
Peter Crabtree
/
VPR File
Two former Bennington residents say they were "scared ... out of town" after lodging complaints about discriminatory policing by the Bennington Police Department, which is headquartered in the building seen here.

Two former Bennington residents say the town select board illegally retaliated against them after the couple raised concerns about discriminatory policing practices.

Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission on Wednesday, alleging that members of the Bennington Select Board “scared [their] entire family out of town” by broadcasting their names and personal information during a public meeting last July.

Keating and Fowler say the disclosure of their personal information came two months after they filed a formal complaint with the Bennington Police Department, in which they alleged that Fowler had been unfairly targeted by officers because of his race.

“The Bennington Police Department targeted us because Joel is a Black man. Nobody at the town did anything about it,” Keating said in a written statement. “It was a really sad situation, that we feared the people that were supposed to protect us.”

"The select board literally ran this family out of town. They put their lives at risk, including their small child, all to set the example to the rest of the community not to complain." — Mia Schultz, Rutland Area NAACP

Several Bennington town officials, including the town manager, chief of police and former select board chair, declined to comment Wednesday.

The Vermont chapter of the ACLU drafted the Human Rights Commission complaint on Keating and Fowler’s behalf. Jay Diaz, senior staff attorney at the Vermont-ACLU, said Wednesday that the public disclosure of his clients’ personal information will discourage future victims of police misconduct from filing complaints in Bennington.

“The Bennington Select Board knows … that many people in its community, especially people of color, are afraid to ask for help or to make complaints about police conduct, because they fear retaliation from police, from town officers, and from others in their community,” Diaz said. “It’s vital that complainants of police misconduct, that their identities are protected, otherwise people will fear retaliation and are less likely to come forward.”

Diaz noted the disclosure was also illegal. He cited a Vermont statute that reads:

“[I]nformation that could be used to identify a complainant who alleges that a public agency, a public employee or official, or a person providing goods or services to a public agency under contract has engaged in a violation of law, or in waste, fraud, or abuse of authority, or in an act creating a threat to health or safety, unless the complainant consents to disclosure of his or her identity.”

Diaz said that instead of obeying that law, “the Bennington Select Board chose to go a different way, and what they chose to do was violate our clients’ privacy, cause them to fear for their safety, so much so that they relocated to another state.”

He added: “And the select board’s action seemed intended to discourage other people from reporting discrimination and police misconduct by the Bennington Police Department."

More from VPR: 'Breakdown In Bennington'

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette investigated Keating and Fowler’s complaints against members of his department, and issued a 62-page report that found no wrongdoing by officers.

At a special meeting on July 22, members of the Bennington Select Board voted to accept the Doucette’s conclusions.

During that same meeting, which has been posted to Youtube, then-board chair Donald Campbell said that town policy required the board to disclose the identity of the individuals who lodged the complaints.

“If the report indicates no cause for criminal charges or police policy violations, and the board finds no basis for overturning the police chief’s conclusions, the report and all supporting materials are made public,” Campbell said.

The now-former board chair said town officials took seriously the allegations filed by Keating and Fowler.

“Because of the ongoing national dialogue on racism and its particular presence in policing, and because we know that racial bias exists to varying degrees in our community, in our police force and in ourselves, I know that each of you has taken this complaint very seriously,” Campbell said to fellow board members.

"The Bennington Police Department targeted us because Joel is a Black man. Nobody at the town did anything about it. It was a really sad situation, that we feared the people that were supposed to protect us." — Cassandra Keating, complainant

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area branch of the NAACP, said Bennington residents have little faith in the select board’s ability to hold law enforcement officials accountable.

A town-commissioned study of the Bennington Police Department, published last April by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, concluded that “some community members fear retaliation” by law enforcement officials.

“Some community members, particularly members of diverse populations, feel that if they make a complaint to the police — even in cases where they’re a victim of a crime — perceive that they are told by the responding officer and the department that they will become the target of the criminal investigation,” the report said.

The report recommended the creation of a “community advisory board” to oversee police issues.

Schultz, a Bennington resident, said the select board instead decided to appoint itself as the police oversight body.

“They still decided that they knew what was best for the community, that they knew the best way to address complaints,” Schultz said Wednesday. “And they were terribly wrong.”

"If the report indicates no cause for criminal charges or police policy violations, and the board finds no basis for overturning the police chief's conclusions, the report and all supporting materials are made public." — Donald Campbell, former Bennington Select Board chair

Schultz on Wednesday recalled the surprise and anger she felt when the select board disclosed Keating and Fowler’s identities.

“We were just taken aback that the retaliation would be so severe, that they would broadcast this family’s personal information and thereby putting them in danger,” she said. “The select board literally ran this family out of town. They put their lives at risk, including their small child, all to set the example to the rest of the community not to complain.”

Keating, Fowler and the Vermont ACLU are asking the Vermont Human Rights Commission to investigate whether the Bennington Select Board violated Vermont’s anti-discrimination statute, and also whether the board’s policy of publicly identifying people who file complaints against police is illegal.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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