BENNINGTON — The town has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed against it several years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont on behalf of a Black man who said town police racially profiled him at a traffic stop in 2013.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Wednesday that the Select Board voted at its Monday meeting to agree to the settlement, which would see Shamel Alexander, who was 25 at the time of his arrest, paid $30,000.
Hurd said the payment will be made by the town’s insurer, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. The town will be responsible for a $5,000 deductible, but all of its legal fees have been paid by the insurer.
“The Town of Bennington and Shamel Alexander have agreed to resolve the case of Alexander v. Town of Bennington ... in order to avoid expensive and protracted litigation,” stated attorney Michael J. Leddy, of the Burlington firm McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan PC, who represented the town. “The allegations remain disputed and the settlement is not deemed to be an admission of any liability. The case has been pending for nearly four years, and it is the desire of both parties to put the matter behind them and move forward.”
The lawsuit was filed in 2016 in U.S. District Court. The year before, the Vermont Supreme Court issued a ruling that reversed Alexander’s 2013 heroin trafficking conviction. According to the decision, a Bennington Police detective assigned to the Vermont Drug Task Force became suspicious of a cab from the Albany, New York, area when the driver of said cab asked him for directions to a local restaurant. Police had information that a large African-American male with the alias “Sizzle” was traveling to Bennington via cab with the intention of selling heroin. Alexander was a passenger in the cab that was stopped, and while police found Alexander in possession of 10 grams of heroin, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that police didn’t have enough reason to search Alexander.
“Our client is grateful to have this case resolved, having shined a spotlight on system-wide discriminatory police practices in Bennington,” stated ACLU of Vermont senior staff attorney Lia Ernst, in a release. “This settlement does not alleviate the need for top-to-bottom changes to a deeply troubled police department and to a municipal leadership that continues to deny there is even a problem with unconstitutional police practices in Bennington. The people of Bennington deserve far better.”
The ACLU noted in a statement that Bennington twice sought to have the lawsuit dismissed and that in one of the decisions issued by U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford, the judge referenced a study purporting that Bennington Police stop Black drivers more often than they do White drivers and were five times more likely to search a Black driver.
According to the ACLU, it was two months ago that the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued recommendations for reforming the Bennington Police Department. The IACP noted the department exhibits a “warrior mentality” and that 40% of people surveyed by the group don’t trust the department while 20% reported being discriminated against by it. The ACLU said the report didn’t include anything about the study cited by Crawford, nor did it mention the Vermont Supreme Court decision.
“The ongoing problems with Bennington police show the limits of traditional police reform efforts and the need to more boldly re-imagine the future of policing in this state,” said ACLU of Vermont senior staff attorney Jay Diaz, in a release. “Vermont’s Legislature has an important role to play in adopting policies that reduce the power of police and make them accountable to their communities. The events of the past several weeks show that people are not going to tolerate lip service and half measures any longer.”
The IACP was hired by the town of Bennington to assess the police department, Hurd said Wednesday, and that since it was published, two public meetings had been held on it.
“The basic finding was there is no systemic bias in any of our policies and procedures and protocols,” he said. “That was one of the questions that had been asked early on. Are we up to date on all of our policies and procedures? No. And that’s probably true for all police departments nationwide. We try to stay current as things change, but it’s not always possible.”
Also, he said the town has contracted the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, led by Curtiss Reed Jr., “to take us through this step of analyzing our policies and upgrading our policies and procedures and taking a look at policing from a more current community policing concept.”
Reed was scheduled to host a public meeting on the subject via Zoom on Wednesday.
Hurd acknowledged the IACP report’s mention of the “warrior mentality” and feels many other police departments have a similar outlook. Hurd said he agrees with observations of others that said outlook became more prevalent after the 2001 terror attacks on New York City which subsequently saw police taking a deeper interest in counter-terrorism.
“Now the concept is police departments really need to take a more community engaged approach to policing,” he said. “It’s probably easier to do in an urban setting because you have neighborhoods and you can put officers in the neighborhood and they get to know the people who live there, they get to become a part of the activities of the neighborhood. It’s a little more difficult with smaller departments in rural areas, but that’s one of the concepts we’ll be taking a look at.”
He said the town is mulling the creation of a citizen board that would review complaints against police.
Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said Wednesday the board is taking the IACP report and subsequent studies seriously.
“It has given us 25 recommendations, many of which are heavy lifts, but all of which we’re going to try and undertake,” he said. “These get at all sorts of different things, they get at simple things like use of force policies, many of which we have, but many of which need to be improved and some of which could be added.”
Campbell said Reed was hired to help outline what needs to be done to improve the community’s relationship with the police department.
“We did this work with an eye towards how we can have the best police department and be the best community we could be,” he said. “There’s differing opinions on how well our police are doing. I think it tends to be that for a lot of people in Bennington they’re really happy with the job police are doing. For some people in Bennington they’re really not happy with it.”
He said the survey on how many people trust the police wasn’t scientific in nature, but the numbers themselves aren’t the issue.
“We know we have a part of our population that’s not happy with the situation and we want to make the situation better for everybody, so that’s what we’re working on now,” he said.
He said while the town was at odds with the ACLU over the facts in this case, he supports the work it does.