In 2018, Rep. Ruqaiyah “Kiah” Morris, the then-only Black female lawmaker in Vermont, stepped down from her duties after suffering months of racial threats and harassment. A year later, she and her husband, James Lawton, filed a formal complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
At the time, Morris stated that her family had faced “continued harassment and seek legal remedies to the harm endured.” Following the announcement, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the Vermont State Police promised they’d look into Morris’ claims.
The Associated Press is now reporting that following a two-year inquiry with eight Bennington Police Department officers, including Chief Paul Doucette, the VHRC discovered that officers failed to properly look into the threats against the former lawmaker due to racism and prejudice.
A 54-page report further stated that the Bennington Police Department “endangered the complainant’s safety” and “deprived the complainants of information that could have used to seek a protective order against [Max] Misch,” a white supremacist, who had been targeting Morris on social media.
“This investigation recommends that the Commission find reasonable grounds to believe that the [Bennington Police Department] discriminated against [Kiah Morris] … and [her husband] James Lawton, on the basis of race and color,” the report added.
They also stated that the department failed to inform Morris and her husband that a local therapist called police to report that Misch, who at the time owned a semi-automatic rifle and several 30-round magazines, might have posed a danger to the couple.
Meanwhile, the town of Bennington disputes the investigation’s findings. The Vermont Public Radio reported that, in a 16-page response, Bennington claimed that while Morris has “undoubtedly been the target of abhorrent racist online harassment carried out by at least one known bigoted individual in the town of Bennington,” the town said, “there is no basis” for concluding that its police department violated Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act. Authorities also said that they were not required by law to inform Morris about that report.
Morris and Lawton settled with the town of Bennington last month and withdrew their complaint before the entire Human Rights Commission voted on whether to accept the investigation results. The group of selected board members agreed to pay the couple $137,500. The town also issued a public apology to the pair “for the harms and trauma they encountered while residing in Bennington.”
Following the results of the investigation, Morris, who no longer resides in Bennington, released a statement regarding the findings, stating, “I distrust law enforcement and have lost confidence in that institution and its representatives to act with integrity.” She added, “I feel less secure now with the passage of time and the well-documented escalation of racialized incidents since our departure there.”