The Vermont Attorney General’s Office has taken over an investigation into allegations of racial harassment against a sitting state lawmaker in Bennington, amid criticism from racial justice advocates over local law enforcement’s handling of the case.
When Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris decided to bring allegations of racial harassment to her local police department, she said the response was underwhelming.
“We went to law enforcement to gain counsel on and try to seek support with, and what was just happening was nothing, to be quite frank,” Morris said in an interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition late last month. “It was weeks without an answer. It was weeks without a response. It was a shoulder shrug and a ‘Good luck.’”
Morris' comments came a few days after Attorney General TJ Donovan announced his office would be taking over the investigation. She said she was the victim of vandalism, a home invasion and that she found swastikas painted on trees near her home.
Morris isn’t the only one to have found fault with the Bennington Police Department’s handling of her case. Racial justice advocates and civil rights officials say the situation spotlights the inadequacy of police responses generally to racial harassment in Vermont.
More from VPR — 'Vermont Is Racist Too': Racial Justice Leaders Say Bennington Incidents Reflect Statewide Problem [Sept. 11]
“We need to understand that law enforcement, particularly those who are in authority in law enforcement, are mostly white men,” Donovan said this week. “And my experience, our experience collectively, is entirely different than a person of color, entirely different from a woman of color.”
Donovan has not leveled any accusations of wrongdoing by the Bennington Police Department or its chief, Paul Doucette. But while Donovan’s investigation into the case is still young, he says one thing is evident:
“For whatever reason, there was a breakdown in Bennington. I think that’s clear. I think that’s what we can agree with right now,” Donovan said. “As to the reasons why, let us conduct our investigation. I think there’s larger issues here at play.”
Asked Monday whether he has any concerns with the way Doucette has handled the investigation, Donovan said: “I’m really focused on what we can do to conduct a thorough investigation.”
Doucette said in an email that he regretfully would not be able to comment for this story. He did say that in his 29-year career with the Bennington Police Department, he has “never been accused of not doing my job.”
The push to have Donovan’s office take over the case wasn’t necessarily driven by concerns over the job the Bennington Police Department was doing. Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion was among several local legislators who asked Donovan to assume the investigation.
“When these kinds of attacks and threats are made against someone, particularly in a racial profiling kind of way," Campion said, "I think we need to have the attorney general take a very serious look at it."
Campion, however, said it was the severity of Morris’ allegations that drove his request.
“I have every reason to believe that the Bennington PD was doing an adequate job. It was really the belief that it needed to rise to the level of the Attorney General’s Office,” Campion said.
In a public written response to Morris’ criticism, issued last week, Doucette detailed the chronology of his department’s work on the case. Doucette said he proactively reached out to Morris to inquire about the latest round of alleged threats being made against her.
But he said Morris and her husband refused to provide passwords to the computers on which the alleged threats had been made. And based on the evidence at hand, and in consultation with the county state’s attorney, Doucette says there wasn’t enough to charge anyone with a crime.
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, the Vermont director of the NAACP, said Doucette’s response missed the mark.
“A lot of the things he said were very victim-blaming and putting ... the onus back on Kiah,” Pohl-Moore said. “A lot of what I heard and read in his comments was gaslighting. The 'it’s not as bad as it looks or feels. It’s being blown out of proportion. She didn’t do what she was supposed to, so we couldn’t do anything.'"
James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he’s not familiar with the specifics of Morris’ case — but his office has been watching the Bennington Police Department.
The ACLU has a civil case pending against the Bennington Police Department, alleging “department-wide systemic racial bias in Bennington policing.”
The ACLU filed suit after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that Bennington police had violated an African-American man’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
“Part of the evidence in that lawsuit shows that 22 of 24 Bennington police officers are making disproportionate stops of people of color, disproportionate searches,” Lyall said.
Those stats are from a study by University of Vermont professor Stephanie Seguino. Of the 29 Vermont police agencies studied in that report, Bennington also had the second-highest rate of disparity for stops of black drivers, when compared to their share of the population.
Lyall said those kinds of statistics are bound to raise questions about whether people of color in Bennington are getting a fair shake. Donovan said confidence among people of color in their law enforcement officials is a statewide concern.
“At the end of the day people may disagree with whatever decisions we make, but they have to trust the process, and there has to be public trust in law enforcement,” Donovan said. “And what that requires is that we listen to people, and we have an open and inviting process where people can go to law enforcement in the first place.”
Disclosure: American Civil Liberties Union is a VPR underwriter.