Chatham police Chief Peter Volkmann stood at a microphone in Bethany Hall of the Old Dutch Church in the Stockade neighborhood of Kingston last Sunday afternoon and addressed an audience of about 50 persons at a meeting of a fairly new pro-Bernie Sanders group called the Ulster People for Justice & Democracy.
“We’re no longer warriors,” he said he had told his town police when he became chief. “We are guardians.”
That sounded familiar, so after the meeting I googled the phrase. It was prominent in the report of a 2015 presidential task force on contemporary American policing. After that, it made the rounds of the national media.
“We were warriors,” an assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department had told a roomful of recruits that same year. “Now we’re guardians watching over the communities.” The emphasis should be on protection over suppression, he said, and patience over zero tolerance. Training needed to be focused not only on firearms and force but on de-escalation. Interactions with the public had to go beyond “I’m the cop and you’re not.” There had to be respect for the citizenry. Police recruits should be trained how to talk to people and build community trust. Problem-solving rather than arrests.
Volkmann was one of three speakers at the event. The other two were political candidates, Juan Figueroa for Ulster County sheriff and Jumaane Williams for lieutenant governor.
We all know the United States is currently in the midst of a national discussion about policing, including a current debate about the best way to tackle the opioid epidemic. There’s a very wide gap in opinion.
Volkmann is a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which wants to increasing police-community trust, to provide alternatives to incarceration, to institute harm-reduction (including treatment on demand) programs, to increase access to treatment, and to advocate for the legalization and regulation of drugs from a public-health perspective.
On Monday, President Donald Trump articulated his tough-on-drugs punishment policy: harsher law enforcement, higher penalties on drug dealers, including the death penalty for some drug dealers, cutting back on opioid prescriptions, and vague promises on increasing access to addiction treatment and adopting harm-reduction approaches.
Chatham in northeast Columbia County has a population of about 4,000, a part-time town police force of 18 officers and a police budget of $157,000 a year. It is also facing an opioid crisis. According to Volkmann, four youngsters in the high school his kids attended had died of opioid overdoses in one extraordinary three-month period.
Volkmann gave me his card. He may be the only police chief in the country the front of whose business card contains the initials MSW (Master of Social Work) after his name. The back of the card provided the Facebook pages @chathampolice and @chathamcares4u.
Volkmann is aware that a cop’s job is more than social work. “Sometimes, violence needs violence,” he told the audience. “There’s no way around it.”
Nationally only 5 percent of young people completing their first detoxification stay clean and sober for a year, Volkmann said. By contrast, half of the those who go for help to the Chatham police station stay clean and sober that long. Chatham has managed to find detox beds for all its opioid users who have sought help. Some 85 percent of all Chatham patients go for detox treatment to Kingston, according to the police chief.
Volkmann said he himself has been through addiction. His own recovery began on Sept. 2, 1995.
The first thing he did when he became police chief, he said, he divided the small town into neighborhoods. Officers had to visit every resident in their neighborhood and talk with them.
Juan Figueroa is a candidate for Ulster County sheriff seeking to run in the Democratic primary against three-time incumbent Paul Van Blarcum. A longtime Marine and a retired local state police trooper, Plattekill resident Figueroa gave his pitch to the group. A Latino originally from the Bronx, Figueroa said that he was no stranger to racism. But he had also been a member of two of the less racist national institutions.
He is a patriot. “If we don’t like the way things are, we can change it,” he said. “That makes our country who we are.”
Peppered with tough questions about submachine guns, carry-and-conceal, the militarization of police, the arming of teachers, and the police as instinctual enemies, Figueroa argued for communication. “Don’t paint the same brush on all,” he urged.
Officers should be told emphatically and frequently that they work for the people. ”Some police officers think the uniform give them power,” the candidate for sheriff explained. “They think they’re better than other people.” There should be zero toleration for discrimination or sexual harassment, he said.
Jumaane Williams is an insurgent Brooklyn city councilman and a fierce opponent of stop-and-frisk and broken-windows police strategies. He spoke of law enforcement as being a component of community enforcement. “Once you create ‘The Other,’” he explained, “you dehumanize.” The way to deal with violence, he said, was through dealing with jobs, housing, education, immigration and climate-change issues.
Sunday afternoons were made for church discussions of community issues. This Kingston event proved a stimulating contribution not only to the national debate over policing strategies but to the local ones as well. As The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in May 2015 began, “Trust between law-enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy. It is key to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services.”