A complaint was filed on Wednesday with the Vermont Human Rights Commission by a former Bennington couple who say they fled from the town in fear after the Select Board exposed their identities when they made what they believed was an anonymous complaint against the town’s police department.
Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler believed they were being harassed by officers with the Bennington Police Department because Fowler is Black.
By email, Stuart Hurd, longtime town manager of Bennington, said Human Rights Commission complaints are confidential.
“We will not be responding until the matter is resolved,” he said.
During a news conference, Jay Diaz, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, called it a “very simple case.”
“Our clients, Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler, sought help for their family after experiencing numerous incidents of racially-motivated targeted harassment by the Bennington police for the two months they lived in Bennington last year. After having those experiences, they made complaints to the Bennington Police Department. They filed formal complaints. They never heard back. Two months later, without warning, their identities, status as complainants and a vast amount of personal information including videos of them, were revealed by the Bennington Select Board during an open Select Board meeting,” he said.
Diaz said the members of the board were following a policy he called illegal which called for releasing details of complaints against police unless the officer was found to have violated department policy.
Diaz said a report made to the town by the International Association of Chiefs of Police had found that residents of Bennington, especially BIPOC residents, were afraid to make complaints because of fears of retaliation.
Diaz said the Select Board ignored those concerns and violated the privacy of Keating and Fowler and “caused them to fear for their safety, so much so that they relocated to another state.” He added the actions seemed to be deliberate to discourage others from coming forward with discrimination and harassment complaints.
“This case is not a one-off, it’s another example in, sadly, the town’s long history of subjecting Black and brown people to over-policing, racial discrimination and fear in their own community,” he said.
Diaz said the town needs a fair process that doesn’t discourage people from coming forward and fairly reviews complaints.
Diaz said that was the reason for the complaint made to the HRC with support from the ACLU and the NAACP of the Rutland area.
The complaint asks whether the Select Board’s policy of releasing information about complainants is discriminatory and the incident with Keating and Fowler was discriminatory retaliation.
Keating was not at the news conference, but Tabitha Moore, who had been president of the Rutland NAACP when Keating and Fowler first sought the organization’s help, read a letter Keating wrote.
Keating said she, Fowler, and their daughter had come to Vermont, after Keating earned a criminal science degree, hoping to “pursue the career of (her) dreams, as a law-enforcement officer.
Keating wanted to live in a rural area.
“I had big hopes and dreams about being able to raise my children in the county and my vision as an outsider looking in was that people in the county would be more kind than in the city and hold the door for the person behind them. Little things like that were what I wanted so badly for my family. But once we arrived in Vermont, our experience was much different. It was nothing that we had ever imagined. The Bennington Police Department targeted us because Joel is a Black man,” Keating wrote in the letter.
Moore, who called the accusations “both horrifying and not surprising given what we’ve seen in Bennington County for years,” told reporters that while working with Keating and Fowler, the couple showed her thick stacks of citations filed against Fowler for minor infractions.
After their identities were exposed, Keating wrote she “felt like the police department and the town were doing everything they could to scare us out of town.”
“We literally left with the clothes on our back. I left food in the fridge, dishes in the cabinet and all of our furniture. I slept on a cold floor for months just to get away from Bennington. Our experience in Vermont was traumatizing. Moving to Bennington was the worst mistake I ever made,” Keating wrote.
Moore, who has spoken to the media about leaving Rutland County because she and her family were being racially harassed, said “Vermont does not have a problem recruiting brown and Black people to come to this state, we have a problem with the way they are treated when they come.”
Mia Schultz, current president of the Rutland area NAACP, which includes Bennington, said even before she learned of the complaints from Keating and Fowler, she and other advocates were working to create a police oversight committee made up of local citizens and BIPOC community members.
But Schultz said the idea was ultimately rejected by the Select Board, twice.
The town eventually created a review board, but the members are the Select Board members themselves, Diaz said.
According to Diaz, the citizen oversight board might be one recommendations resulting from the HRC complaint.