Two New Paltz Town Board members, who also serve on the New Paltz Police Commission, showed up before their regularly scheduled board meeting on December 6 to hear from the public regarding the case of Paul Echols, an African-American Ellenville resident who has accused New Paltz police officers of brutality.
Echols was arrested September 9 and has since accused town police officers of brutality. He said he suffered a broken jaw and dislocated teeth at the hands of police officers who struck him while he was handcuffed and seated in the back of a patrol car.
This special meeting of the Police Commission was called to comply with a contractual deadline to rule on disciplinary issues, but after it was scheduled, union officials granted an extension to allow for more evidence to be brought forward. That means the decision on possible disciplinary action against a New Paltz police officer will be made at the Police Commission meeting on Thursday, December 20.
The officer was not named by anyone present.
Edgar Rodriguez is a member of Concerned Parents of New Paltz, the group that initiated the complaint against the officer. He said that Echols “became a victim twice,” first by being hit by someone on the street, and then by the officer, whom Rodriguez said had admitted during Echols’ court appearance the night prior to the meeting on December 6 to striking Echols three times. Rodriguez said that during the Concerned Parents investigation, Echols maintained he was hit “many more” times by the officer. Additionally, he said that there were several witnesses to the incident, which was not filmed because there’s no camera inside the police car.
This is the first case undertaken since the creation of a Citizens’ Advisory Board to the police, members of which reviewed the evidence and prepared a report for the police commissioners. “When will that report become public?” Rodriguez asked. (The answer is December 20.)
Tanya Marquette, a Concerned Parents member who was also a signer of the complaint against the officer, wants to see standards developed for the use of force, both in New Paltz and nationwide. “Somebody being angry and cursing out the police does not justify being beaten,” she said.
According to published reports, Echols was allegedly “sucker-punched” and responding officers arrested a friend of his who retaliated; the altercation with Echols related to his attempts to interfere with that arrest. An Ulster County deputy sheriff wrote in his deposition, “I observed Mr. Echols to have a completely bloody face while walking over to their location,” and got blood on officers during his own arrest.
Deputy Supervisor Dan Torres explained that he wants to make sure that “we have all the documentation” when the discussion of this case takes place, and encouraged Rodriguez to have those witnesses come forward.
“We can only review what’s presented,” said Supervisor Neil Bettez, adding that this is exactly why the Citizens’ Advisory Board was created. However, Rodriguez said that those witnesses are reluctant because they fear retaliation by police. He and others recounted an incident which allegedly took place outside of McGillicuddy’s, when a town officer allegedly told civilians that they “better have video, like Paul Echols.”
Mistrust of police?
New Paltz Police Chief Joseph Snyder said the Dec. 6 meeting was the first he’d heard about such an exchange. He was also present at an informal meeting to listen to residents, and he also encouraged witnesses to come forward, if not to police directly then to members of the advisory board. Three months after the incident, Snyder said that they “can’t wait forever for this information” in order to issue findings, which would be kept confidential even though the advisory report will not. While there is interest in releasing the video of portions of the incident, such evidence is often kept under wraps while legal cases and proceedings such as this one unfold. The chief would not even comment as to possible consequences for the officer, if commissioners did determine the use of force was excessive.
Marquette agreed that it was unlikely any of those unnamed witnesses would be persuaded to come forward, saying to Snyder, “You are part of the problem.” She recommended that all officers be enrolled in the Undoing Racism program, a multi-day training that is designed to help participants recognize the more subtle tones in which racism is sometimes expressed in the 21st century, including expressions which are unconscious. Further, Marquette argued for “an attitude of serving” among officers, rather than the air of authority she sees instead. That attitude contributes to “a great deal of mistrust” among people of color, she said.
“Many people don’t trust the police,” said Maureen Crocker, who taught Echols in the Ellenville schools and believes him to be a “mild-mannered individual.” It was Crocker whom Echols first approached, she said. Members of minorities are “frightened the police will retaliate” if they come forward with their eyewitness accounts. Instead, she is hoping to promulgate a more positive view of police as protectors of “all marginalized people.”
Charlotte Greer said that New Paltz “seems like a peaceful town,” but this story gives her pause. “I don’t feel comfortable calling the New Paltz police for domestic violence,” she said, based on what she sees as their attitudes about appropriate use of force.
Lester Meyers explained that people of color avoid calling the police because they are “made to feel this small,” he said with an appropriate gesture of tininess. He noted that New Paltz is a liberal community “until you’re black or gay,” when it was more likely to be treated with disrespect by those sworn to protect them. Speaking out, as the witnesses are asked to do, is likely to yield death threats, he said.
The “town gets a reputation for being liberal,” said a man who did not provide his name, who said he has experienced police brutality locally. What happens when a black man comes forward, he said, is that “a formal gas-lighting follows.”
Other issues which were raised have been discussed more widely, such as how black men must give considerable thought as to their dress and behavior lest they feel targeted by officers.
Resident Kevin Kelly encouraged some kind of action sooner than two weeks. While his own police encounters have been largely positive, he warned that allowing rumors to fester could result in members of the public reaching unfounded conclusions.
Torres, in closing the session, acknowledged that “people don’t like to talk about race,” and that “institutional racism is a real thing.”
The New Paltz Police Commission will meet to decide on this case on Thursday, December 20, 6:30 p.m., at the Courthouse, located on Plattekill Avenue in New Paltz. The Concerned Parents group will hold a vigil outside beginning at 5:30 p.m.