BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) — The town of Bennington has agreed to pay the family of a Black former state lawmaker $137,000 and to issue a public apology over complaints that the Bennington Police Department did not adequately investigate online and other racially motivated harassment.
The select board unanimously approved the settlement agreement concerning the complaint to the Human Rights Commission from Kiah Morris and her family, the Bennington Banner reported Thursday.
In 2018, Morris, who was the only Black woman in the Legislature, resigned after receiving what she said were online and other racial threats. After an investigation by state police, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Morris was a victim of racial harassment but that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone. The family has since sold their home and moved out of Bennington.
“No one in Bennington should feel unsafe or unprotected,” said Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins during a meeting. She said its clear that Morris, James Lawton and their son “felt unsafe and unprotected by the town of Bennington. We have to do better by all persons who live in, work in or travel through the town of Bennington irrespective of color, race, religion and other categories as protected by the law.”
The town “apologizes to Kiah Morris, James Lawton and their family for the harms and trauma they encountered while residing in Bennington, and we fully acknowledge this reality. We pledge to learn, to do better and to protect all of our citizens,” she said.
The settlement was reached through mediation, Jenkins said. The agreement becomes official after the parties all sign it and the complaint is withdrawn, which was expected by Friday, Jenkins said.
Lawton said the family would issue a written statement. Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, said the settlement amount is not enough and the apology “was weak and insincere at best.”
“Once again there is no accountability for the systemic racism that is overwhelmingly present in the police department, the select board and the town manager,” she said.
Under the settlement, the town must continue an ongoing review and reform of police department policies and procedures, including the consideration of a police advisory or oversight panel that involves the public.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police did a review and found last year that the Bennington Police Department’s practices have created deep mistrust in parts of the community, undermining its “law enforcement legitimacy.” The report said the department has some outdated and unclear policies, lacked a mission statement that officers were aware of, and often has a “warrior mentality” in daily interactions with residents.
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