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Human Rights Commission Complaint Accuses Bennington, Vt. Of Unlawful Retaliation

A yellow banner on a telephone pole that reads "downtown Bennington" against a blue sky.
Josh Landes

Two former residents of Bennington, Vermont, have filed a complaint with the state’s Human Rights Commission. They claim the town unlawfully retaliated against them after they spoke out against racist treatment by town police.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is representing Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler as they call on the state to investigate Bennington.

“They felt that there were numerous instances of racially motivated targeting and harassment of them by police officers. For the two months that they lived in Bennington, they made complaints, never heard back, and then two months later, without warning, their identities, personal information, status as complainants and videos of them were revealed by the Bennington select board during an open select board meeting," said senior staff attorney Jay Diaz. “This disclosure constitutes retaliation. Because, as the Bennington select board well knows, and as many people well know across the country, if people who make police misconduct complaints are afraid that their identities will be exposed, whether it's to law enforcement in the community, to town officials, or to members of their community who may disagree with them, that they won't make complaints in the future. That fear of retaliation is too great, especially among people of color, given the historical and justices we've seen at the hands of law enforcement.”

The incidents of racial discrimination by the Bennington Police reported by Keating and Fowler happened in 2020. Chief Paul Doucette issued a 62-page report last summer that found no wrongdoing from his officers.

The town of Bennington declined to comment on this story.

Former Rutland Area Branch NAACP president Tabitha Moore read a statement from Keating at the virtual press conference Wednesday.

“The Bennington Police Department targeted us because Joel is a Black man," Moore read. "Nobody at the town did anything about it. It was really sad situation that we fear the people that were supposed to protect us. When we wrote complaints against the police department for targeting us they were ignored. Then the select board exposed our personal information, license plate numbers, vehicle descriptions, addresses, everything they could find they made public. They also publicly bashed us in the local media. After that Joel and I left Vermont in fear. I feel like the police department and the town were doing whatever they could to scare us out of town. We literally left with the clothes on our backs. I left food in the fridge. This is dishes in the cabinet and all of our furniture. I slept on a cold floor for months just to get away from Bennington.”

Diaz says Keating and Fowler’s experience isn’t the first for people of color in the community.

“This is part and parcel with Bennington’s unfortunate record of protecting its police department when there are complaints of discrimination, and retaliating against individuals who bring up these issues. It's also just another example of the long history with the town of subjecting Black and brown people to over-policing, discrimination and fear in their own community.”

Rutland Area NAACP branch president Mia Schultz says she’s frustrated that the issue has risen to the state level.

“It feels like we're still not being heard," she told WAMC. "And it feels like, you know that the town government, as they lie their Black Lives Matter flag and approve our mural in the street means that that's all performative that they really do not believe that Black Lives Matter, that they really do not believe that anyone other than a select few should have a voice in this community.”

The complaint to the state asks the town’s select board to change its disclosure policies to protect members of the public, and for just compensation for the harm caused.

“It’s very clear that their policy of disclosing complainants’ identities is illegal under Vermont law," said Diaz. "Our Public Records Act, as well as numerous other Vermont police accountability laws, say very clearly, protecting complainants’ identities is of the utmost importance. And there's even a specific statute that say, you know, government entities shall not reveal the identities of those who complain of government abuse of power unlawfulness or, or malfeasance. That's exactly what happened here.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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