Former Bennington residents accuse town of retaliation after complaints of racial profiling
Two former Bennington residents say town officials retaliated against them after the couple accused the police department of racial bias, according to a lawsuit filed on Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.
Cassandra Keating and Joel Fowler filed eight complaints in 2020 with the town alleging that Bennington Police targeted them based on "racial animus," and engaged in "near constant surveillance" of them, court documents say. Fowler is Black, and Keating is white.
The selectboard reviewed and dismissed their complaints based on the police department's accounts and did not contact Fowler or Keating, the lawsuit says. The board also published documents online that included that couple's phone numbers, driver's license numbers and their home address, court documents say.
Keating and Fowler have since left Bennington, according to the lawsuit.
“No one should fear retribution for seeking to hold their government accountable,” said Harrison Stark, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Vermont, in a written statement. “It is especially disturbing when that happens in response to complaints about racial discrimination and harassment by a police force with an established record of bias and abuse.”
Keating and Fowler had previously filed a complaint about this incident with the Human Rights Commission. According to a May 2023 report, an investigation by the HRC determined that there were “no reasonable grounds” to believe that the town of Bennington or the selectboard had discriminated or retaliated against the couple. However, the commission, after hearing legal arguments from both the town and the ACLU of Vermont, determined that "extraordinary circumstances existed" and unanimously voted to re-opened the investigation, said Lia Ernst, legal director at the ACLU of Vermont.
"While we would have preferred to see the HRC process through to completion, the statute of limitations for Ms. Keating and Mr. Fowler’s claims dictated otherwise," Ernst said in an email on Tuesday morning.
HRC executive director Bor Yang declined to comment and in an email Tuesday said the commission's work is usually confidential, unless a "reasonable grounds finding is made."
In a written statement, the town of Bennington denied wrongdoing, and pointed to the recent HRC investigation.
“Upon a cursory review of the recently filed complaint, it appears to be substantially similar to the HRC complaint that the ACLU publicized in April 2021. The Town believes the allegations in the lawsuit are similarly deficient and will respond and defend the case as appropriate,” according to the written statement from the town of Bennington.
This new lawsuit is the second time this year that the ACLU of Vermont has brought a case against Bennington officials. The group filed alawsuit against the Bennington Police in January for
allegedly using unconstitutional interrogation techniques.
In recent years, the town has settled two high-profile cases alleging racial bias in the police department. Bennington paid $30,000 in 2020 to settle claims of systemic racial profiling, and in 2021 paid $137,000 to former state rep. Kiah Morris and her family to resolve claims that police didn’t adequately investigate racially motivated threats. Morris, the sole Black woman lawmaker in Montpelier at the time, resigned in 2018 due to the harassment.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or reach out to reporter Liam Elder-Connors: