A group of 30 individuals, mostly SUNY New Paltz students, descended on the October 19 New Paltz Town Council meeting, eager to share their stories of police encounters gone wrong. This was in response to an incident witnessed by some of the protestors, during which local officers dealt with suspects in a manner deemed overly aggressive by those gathered in the community center to air those concerns. The race of the suspects evoked for those protestors memories of racially-motivated police encounters frequently in the news in the past few years.
Many of them displayed signs indicating that black lives matter, raising alarm over the sense of police brutality, or with motifs that included “17%,” the percentage of Town of New Paltz residents theoretically arrested in the time that Neil Bettez has served as supervisor of the town. That figure, apparently derived from court records, does not break out what portion of those arrests were effected by town officers, Bettez pointed out, and what should be attributed to state, county and university police instead.
According to reports provided to council members from self-described witnesses, the suspects in the incident did not resist, yet an officer smacked the phone out of one of their hands and ignored their questions.
A man who identified himself as Patrick (one organizer advised the attendees that they were not required to provide their real names) recounted being stopped by officers last month because a black man with dreadlocks was suspected of stealing a phone. With the officers “looming over me,” he said, “I just thought, ‘death.’”
Former village trustee candidate Galo Vasquez said that it is “hard to ignore things that we have seen,” but that many people might not believe such incidents can occur in New Paltz.
“Charlotte” called it over-policing, citing a statistic that some 98% of those charged are subsequently freed because the violations are “lifestyle choices” such as drug use and noise. Better to focus on issues such as sexual assault and other violent crimes, she said.
“Jack” claimed a friend of his was arrested for cannabis possession and subjected to a body cavity search; council member Jeff Logan asserted that town officers do not engage in such measures.
New Paltz Police Chief Joseph Snyder, who was not present for the protest, was unable to respond to questions in time for this story due to being out of town.
The most pointed comments were made by local activist attorney Celeste Tesoriero, who laid responsibility at the feet of the supervisor. Calling him the “dad of the board” to whom responsibility falls, she told him, “You’re a bad guy,” for allowing the high amount of marijuana-related arrests in particular.
“Neil does not arrest anybody,” said council member Marty Irwin later.
Robert Hoffman, president of the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, took a more conciliatory tone, saying that they were dedicated to the “prospect of peace.” His specific suggestions were to defang the most problematic portions of the village’s noise ordinance (which includes forbidding annoying sounds such as “hooting” and “whistling”) and using body cameras, which in his opinion would “benefit any good actor.”
While experts are finding that body cameras improve investigations and community trust, a study released this month suggests that they don’t actually modify officer behavior. Looking at more than 2,000 officers in Washington, D.C. over 18 months, researchers found that the amount of force used during encounters did not appreciably change when cameras were worn, nor did civilian complaints.
“I think our message was heard,” said Hoffman when reached later by phone. He reported having a conversation with some board members during an intermission. He said it was “important that we make sure we stand up, we believe the witnesses and their stories.”
The incident described was reported, and will be the first such situation to be reviewed by the town’s newly-minted citizens’ advisory board, members of which at this time are able only to issue recommendations, as officer contracts specify who may actually mete out discipline. Hoffman said that he and his compatriots will be watching that process unfold.
Hoffman also indicated that he believes that incidents such as what has been reported here are the result of “common police training,” rather than anything unique to town officers. Moreover, a “nexus of police” patrolling New Paltz, where five departments exercise some sort of jurisdiction, has led to over-enforcement of laws pertaining to “victimless crimes.”
Bettez did promise a closer look at policing figures, with an attempt to determine which officers are arresting people for these violations, since only the actions of town officers are under the purview of this board.
One moment during the meeting, which Hoffman said was mentioned to him, was the fact that none of the protestors joined in reciting the pledge of allegiance. This was not orchestrated, he said, but a collection of individual decisions. “We are trying to make a country where we are all proud to say the pledge,” he said.