Bennington Settles Police Racial Profiling Case for $30K | Off Message

Bennington Settles Police Racial Profiling Case for $30K


  • Daniel Fishel
A Black man who claimed Bennington police racially profiled him has settled with the town for $30,000, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont said Wednesday.

Police were looking for a drug dealer in July 2013 when an undercover officer spotted Shamel Alexander riding in the backseat of a New York taxi. Officer Andy Hunt pulled over the cabbie and eventually questioned Alexander. Alexander was not the dealer police were seeking, but, after searching his bag, the officer found $1,500 worth of heroin.

Alexander was later convicted and sentenced by a state judge to 10 years in prison, despite having no criminal history. He appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, which vacated the conviction in 2016 on the grounds that police had no lawful basis to stop Alexander.
Alexander also sued the Town of Bennington for civil rights violations, claiming his arrest was part of a pattern of racial profiling by the Bennington Police Department.

Bennington twice tried unsuccessfully to get the case dismissed before agreeing to settle, the ACLU said.

"Our client is grateful to have this case resolved, having shined a spotlight on system-wide discriminatory police practices in Bennington," staff attorney Lia Ernst said in a press release. "This settlement does not alleviate the need for top-to-bottom changes to a deeply troubled police department and to a municipal leadership that continues to deny there is even a problem with unconstitutional police practices in Bennington."

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the municipality did not admit liability as part of the settlement. "This has been pending for four years," he wrote in an email. "All parties agreed it’s best to avoid further long and protracted litigation."
A 2017 study by University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino found that Bennington police stopped Black drivers at more than double the rate of white drivers. It was one of the worst racial disparities in the state, the researchers found. The study was cited as part of Alexander's civil rights lawsuit and criticized by the Town of Bennington as "seriously flawed."

A 2019 study by the Montpelier-based Crime Research Group was also highly critical of Seguino's earlier work. Its analysis found no racial disparities in traffic stops by Bennington police.
Earlier this year, an outside report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police critiqued the Bennington department for a "warrior" culture and found many residents didn't trust its officers.

The town selectboard commissioned the review in wake of criticism that police mishandled harassment allegations reported by former state representative Kiah Morris. Morris, the only woman of color in the legislature at the time, cited racist harassment in later resigning her seat.

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