Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion. File photos by Erin Mansfield and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Bennington’s two state senators introduced legislation last month authorizing municipalities to create civilian boards with strong powers to oversee their police departments — after the town wanted a local board to oversee complaints against Bennington police.

But now some Bennington officials say they no longer want legislators’ help on the matter, with the town manager describing the bill as having “gone too far.” The ACLU of Vermont and the Rutland Area NAACP, meanwhile, consider the bill, S.75, a step toward more police accountability. 

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, where the bill was sent, said she doesn’t expect it to meet the Legislature’s March 17 crossover deadline to clear her panel but anticipates returning to it later this session or next year.

The legislation proposes giving civilian boards the authority to manage police departments, much like selectboards, town managers and police chiefs do.

The bill doesn’t mandate municipalities to do anything. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said the two introduced it to prevent towns — such as Bennington — from having to enact a charter change just to have an effective police oversight board.

“They can do any of it, all of it, none of it, just a little bit,” Sears said. “Set it up any way they want.”

These civilian boards would receive, investigate and rule on misconduct complaints against police officers, then issue sanctions in accordance with collective bargaining agreements.

Each board could also hire an attorney, police investigators and administrative staff. To aid in a board’s investigations, members would be able to subpoena witnesses and inspect police department documents, including personnel records and body camera footage.

Such boards would publicize their findings and any disciplinary measures against an officer, as well as complaints that are dismissed.

But, according to Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd, “If it was meant to be a bill that Bennington wanted, it went way too far.”

Last spring, town officials sought the help of state legislators when they created Bennington’s first Community Policing Advisory Review Board — and were told that state law barred the civilian board from reviewing the police chief’s findings regarding complaints against local officers. Police oversight apparently fell only within the purview of the chief, town manager and selectboard.

Since then, town officials have figured out that a mechanism within the Bennington Police Department allows the civilian board authority to review police complaints and the chief’s findings. But some details in those reports would be redacted, Hurd said, such as the identity of the police officer who was investigated and the complainant’s name.

Given this development, Bennington Selectboard Chair Jeannie Jenkins said Bennington and other municipalities won’t need S.75 to oversee complaints against police.

“I think it’s not necessary,” Jenkins said. “I feel like there are easier ways to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.”

They pointed to other downsides. She and Hurd said a civilian board could become costly if authorized to hire its own staff.

Hurd said members of the civilian board would need to undergo extensive training before they’re qualified to have a hand in potentially disciplining officers. He said this includes understanding personnel law and the challenges of a police officer’s job.

“Being able to deal with personnel is not something that the average citizen knows coming off the street,” Hurd said. 

He said S.75, if passed in its current form, could add more “tension” in Bennington. He explained that some community members would want the civilian board to take on all the powers granted to it under state law.  

Hurd also questioned the bill’s constitutionality, since it allows civilians outside the selectboard and town manager to look into the confidential personnel files of police officers. 

Sears owed to “miscommunication” the opposition of some Bennington officials to S.75.

“I just was surprised,” he said. “I thought that’s what they wanted. They tried to say there was miscommunication, but I thought I heard pretty clearly that they were concerned that they needed a charter change.” 

Civil rights advocacy groups, meanwhile, welcomed the bill.

The ACLU of Vermont’s lobbyist, Falko Schilling, said enabling meaningful civilian oversight of law enforcement is an effective way to create greater trust between police and the communities they serve.

“It allows communities to respond to the concerns raised by their citizens,” he said.

Schilling said he is surprised by some of the opposition to the bill, since it’s not forcing municipalities to act in any way. “It’s simply giving more powers to municipalities to try and do what they think is right for their communities.” 

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, said she is not surprised by the pushback. She said people who have long held power over the police, such as Hurd, don’t want to cede this control.

“The structure and system are always pushing back when you want to put power in the hands of people,” Schultz said. “It would force them to answer for their behavior, that they wouldn’t have control over the narrative, that they wouldn’t have control over the end results.”

She disagreed that ordinary citizens might not be qualified to make important personnel decisions involving the police, saying community members have rich and varied life experiences.

During Town Meeting Day on Tuesday, Burlington voters rejected a proposed charter change that would have created a new, independent board to oversee the city’s police department.

As worded, the police oversight board would have created a new city department with the power to discipline or remove any of the police department’s members, including the chief.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Bennington officials oppose police oversight bill drafted by Bennington senators.

As Reported by VTDigger