Two days after calls by advocacy groups for an inquiry into Bennington officials over allegations of racial bias in the investigation into harassment and threats made against a former legislator, the town has agreed to hire an independent, outside agency to conduct a review.
No information was available Wednesday about who might conduct the review or when it would happen.
On Monday, the Vermont offices of the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union called for an investigation of Bennington’s police department in response to the way local police handled the investigation of complaints by Kiah Morris and her husband, James Lawton, over messages they had received from Max B. Misch. The persistence of the messages and the threats she perceived led Morris, who had been a state representative, to withdraw from her re-election campaign.
Last week, Misch was arraigned in Bennington criminal court on charges he had illegally possessed large-capacity ammunition magazines in violation of a Vermont law enacted last year. The case was investigated by the Vermont State Police and the prosecution is being handled by the office of T.J. Donovan, Vermont’s attorney general.
Speaking to reporters after the arraignment, Donovan said the Bennington police had information about other large-capacity magazines that Misch bought in October. He said that information should have been disclosed.
After the NAACP and ACLU statement, Donovan called on Bennington to have an outside agency investigate its police department.
In a statement, Town Manager Stuart Hurd pointed out that Donovan could have had a more direct role.
“I can say that this task was offered to the Attorney General within the last few days. He declined. Therefore, we are seeking information and assistance to understand who and what is required for this effort,” Hurd said.
Hurd defended Bennington’s police department, pointing out that Donovan had said at a news conference last month, during which he announced he would not seek criminal charges against Misch for the harassment, that the Bennington Police Department “followed all proper protocols in the investigations of the numerous allegations made by Ms. Morris and Mr. Lawton.”
“The (police) department acted professionally and effectively in all matters involving this case,” Hurd said.
Donovan released his own statement Wednesday in which he said he had spoken to Hurd earlier in the day. He called the decision to invite an independent investigation “good news.”
“Maintaining public trust and public safety are the top priorities for law enforcement and bringing in an outside expert is a step in the right direction,” Donovan said.
In a statement, Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage said she found the Bennington police to be “professional and thorough in their investigations.”
Marthage acknowledged the work of a study committee that found last year a disproportionate number of minorities involved in the criminal justice system in Vermont compared to the minority population of the state, but said that was a problem throughout the state and the country.
“The Legislature this year is considering a bill that will examine systemic bias within policing. This is the beginning of a much more involved conversation that can happen at all levels of government and community. The Bennington Police Department has always been open to having difficult conversations, and I am confident they will be a valuable part of the statewide conversation,” Marthage said.
Donovan and Hurd said they would rely on their statements Wednesday, although Hurd confirmed the town would pursue the investigation. Marthage could not be reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Vermont director of the NAACP and president of the Rutland-area branch, said Wednesday she did not anticipate a response from the NAACP and ACLU, but said she didn’t think the response was strong enough. She questioned why Donovan had not taken a more active hand and whether an investigation commissioned by the town of Bennington could be objective.
Hurd mentioned a lawsuit being brought against the town by the ACLU for racial profiling.
“That case should be tried in the courts not in the court of public opinion. The racial-profiling case relies primarily on a study referred to as the UVM study, ‘Driving Black and Brown in Vermont.’ A subsequent study by an independent organization, the Crime Research Group, calls into question the methodology used in the UVM study thus rendering its conclusions unreliable,” he said.
The study, which was provided to the media, did not find any bias.
Karen Gennette, executive director of the Crime Research Group, said the study was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Several towns, including Bennington, were studied to look for racial disparities in traffic stops.
The only report released to date was for Bennington but Gennette said an aggregate study of Vermont will be released when it’s finished.