A simmering dispute between Kingston’s rank-and-file police officers and City Hall burst into public view last week when the Kingston Police Benevolent Association issued a letter accusing Mayor Steve Noble of “political grandstanding” in his handling of two recent allegations of police misconduct.
Now, KPBA President Barry Rell says the mayor’s efforts to placate local police reform advocates risks creating a generation of disillusioned city cops and may serve to degrade public safety.
“So much damage has been done, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to repair,” said Rell, a sergeant in the KPD’s patrol division. “It’s probably ruined a decade’s worth of law enforcement officers.”
The union’s complaint centers on the handling of two complaints of excessive force and officer misconduct lodged against Kingston cops last year. In September 2015, Fabian Marshall was tackled and tased after he turned and began walking away from an officer questioning him about an assault that had occurred nearby. Adrin Brodhead was pepper-sprayed and thrown to the ground in a July 2017 confrontation with officers who stopped him after they spotted him walking down Broadway with an open container of beer. Both men, who are black, filed formal complaints with the Kingston Police Commission with support from local activists, who claim that city police routinely engage in racial profiling, excessive force and other misconduct. The six-member commission, headed by Mayor Noble, eventually cleared all of the officers involved of violating police department policy. Two officers in the Brodhead case were recommended for “command discipline” — the lowest level of departmental discipline — and received letters of counseling in their personnel files.
Rell said audio and video evidence from officer’s dash cams and bystanders’ cell phones unequivocally exonerated the officers involved. Yet the review process by the commission stretched over several monthly meetings of the Police Commission. Rell said the delay left the officers involved under a shadow, despite the fact that they had been cleared through the department’s own internal review process. The commission’s meetings would become forums for activist groups including Citizen Action and Rise Up Kingston to air grievances and demand action. Rell said he believes the commission delayed a swift resolution to the complaints out of deference to the activists.
“It’s not that the commission shouldn’t entertain these complaints, that’s part of their job, but they’re dragging on for months,” said Rell. “It’s almost like they’re keeping them open so that they don’t have to tell these outside groups that these guys didn’t do anything wrong.”
Rell said the sense of confusion and suspicions of political motives among rank-and-file officers extended to the “command discipline” meted out to two officers in the Brodhead case. According to Rell, both officers had what they believed was an informal meeting with KPD Chief Egidio Tinti, where they were told that while they had not violated any department policy, they “might have done some things differently.” A record of the meeting was then placed in both cops’ personnel files.
“These guys are thinking, ‘Why am I being disciplined?’” said Rell. “‘You just told me I did everything right?’”
Rell said the police commission’s handling of the two cases had left police officers feeling bitter, frustrated and disinclined to act proactively on quality-of-life issues like public drinking and traffic enforcement. Rell added that the issue was exacerbated by a frustrating process of contract negotiations between Noble and the union, which has been working without a labor agreement since January 2016.
“At the end of the day what the guys want to see is support from the mayor,” said Rell. “And they don’t feel like they’re seeing that.”
The mayor responds
Chief Tinti did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, but Noble this week defended his efforts to address concerns brought to him by groups like Rise Up Kingston, calling them an essential component of the city’s commitment to “community policing.” Noble said some of the reforms, like issuing body cameras to all Kingston cops, had strong support from officers who view the cameras as a hedge against false misconduct claims. Noble said he hopes to work on long-term strategies to address issues raised by the reform groups, while ensuring that the police commission follows the city charter in carrying out its duty to examine misconduct complaints.
“When it comes to specific situations, I’m not going to be able to make everybody happy,” said Noble. “But my goal is to get to a place where everybody trusts the process.”