Civil-rights attorney talks about police interactions in New Paltz forum

Attorney Michael Sussman (photo by Lauren Thomas)

In a question-and-answer session on civil rights and engaging with police officers, attorney Michael Sussman painted a picture that was not exactly hopeful, but left the door open to a future with fewer dangerous police encounters if a wider dialog on police rights and responsibilities occurs.

Sussman was invited to speak at the event (along with King Downing, who had to cancel at the last minute) by organizers, who included members of the International Socialist Organization, Black Student Union and Concerned Parents of New Paltz. As laid out by Black Student Union representative Imani Burnett, the purpose was to provide education about rights during a police encounter, how to exercise them and how to recognize issues of excessive force used by law enforcement personnel.

Explaining how the Concerned Parents of New Paltz got involved, Tanya Marquette recounted that racism has always been the group’s focus throughout its 30-year-plus history. Much of that work is done in the public schools, but members became interested in the Paul Echols case, wherein a 23-year-old African-American man accused local police of brutality in the course of an arrest in New Paltz last September. Police were cleared of wrongdoing by the New Paltz Police Commission, a result Marquette said was “not surprising, but extremely annoying.” The case against Echols, 23 of Ellenville, for charges arising from that encounter, will be in New Paltz court on March 4. (Sussman is Echols’ attorney.)


One impact of the Echols case is that a system put into place to keep citizens involved in complaints against officers failed completely, and was consequently replaced. When the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which was created in 2016 to advise on disciplinary matters, were asked to comment on the Echols case, members were not clear as to their actual charge, or how to obtain the information they felt necessary to proceed. It was the first matter considered using this process, and it was the first time town attorney Joe Moriello got a look at how the group was structured. Finding some legal issues, he recommended scrapping the advisory committee in favor of an advisory board; town council members did just that on February 7. Membership on that board has yet to be determined, but actual discipline will rest with the police chief and lieutenant unless that authority is transferred during contract negotiations this year.

Sussman recounted details from his cases that involved police use of force. To his mind, while racism plays a role in many of them, that speaks to racial tensions in society, rather than suggests that police officers are more racist than members of the public at large. Once an attorney at the NAACP, Sussman finds that present leadership of that organization have been “muted” in their response to inflammatory rhetoric and race-related events. Added to that is what’s becoming a typical pattern of reaction from members of the general public: they “get riled up and concerned,” but overall are becoming “numbed” by the frequency such events are reported.

What makes racism problematic in a police officer is that court precedent and law give that officer a certain amount of protection from prosecution. “There should be a criminal prosecution” when arrest becomes abuse, Sussman believes, and such officers “should never be near a badge again.” The legal environment provides certain doctrines of immunity, however, and often an officer is actually defended through the state attorney general’s office, a practice Sussman would like to see ended.

The culture, too, contributes to the assumption that police officers are in the right. District attorneys and medical examiners have close relationships with police officers, and investigating them could prove politically difficult. Sussman spoke of a case in which a suspect initially ran from police, then stopped and surrendered. When he was lying face-down on the ground, an officer broke the suspect’s ankle by stepping on it, and then his wrist. “If you run, it’s hard to later sue,” Sussman said, because members of juries won’t be focusing on the subsequent surrender.

Held in the student union building on campus, the event drew members of the campus and wider New Paltz communities. Sussman told an audience mixed in age and ethnic background not to “fight back in the moment” of an police encounter, as that only gives an “opportunity to brutalize you.” Instead he recommends “living another day to fight against the misconduct.” While he finds that cases of misconduct against young men of color to be common and “heartbreaking,” he warned that “it could happen to anyone” due to racial stereotypes and divisive rhetoric on the national stage.

Perhaps to demonstrate that societal divisions are more across racial than class lines, Sussman spoke of D.J. Henry, a Pace University student fatally shot by police in 2010. A football player from an affluent family, Henry was shot while driving away from police at a slow rate of speed. An investigation revealed that police reports about Henry’s behavior were inconsistent with the facts. His parents eventually received settlements of several wrongful-death suits, but the officer was never charged with any crime. Sussman says that this tendency is the result of “devaluation” of the life of the victim compared to those of other people.

While there is little one can do during a police encounter, Sussman hinted that more could be done on a wider level, if there was but the will. “We haven’t tried” to do more, he said, and that emboldens potential wrongdoers. The attorney would like to turn the concept of “broken-windows policing” on its head, and focus that level of scrutiny on law enforcement officers. “If we let them get away with small things,” he believes, it can lead to these more serious cases. As with policing for broken windows, when the smallest issue is prosecuted to ensure bigger problems never happen, Sussman would have police officers under a societal microscope to ensure they are indeed protecting and serving.

Sussman told audience members that a body camera captured officers yelling about Echols spitting blood on them, which is part of the narrative in reports filed about the incident. However, according to what the attorney saw in that body camera footage, there is “not a speck of blood on any of them” even as they are claiming to have blood covering them. This is officers “trying to justify” what had occurred after the fact, Sussman posited. All victims of police “have done something terrible.”

The timing of this event may heighten attendance at Echols’ March 4 court date, but as Sussman noted, organizing around a single incident is not likely to change things. That’s going to take long-term, sustained action on many fronts. Whether that will occur in New Paltz or the state remains to be seen.

There are 5 comments

  1. village townie

    Community Policing has been proven very effective, growing up in New Paltz many local citizens have always enjoyed a very good personal and professional relationship with our new Paltz Police.

    As a child we had Village Police and Town Police.

    While attorneys sound very nice they remain very much a part of the “Deep State” and control the laws to take your money. Dont trust your attorney look at disbarred Michael Cohen.

    Trust your personal private relationship with your local police, dont trust your attorney, Michael Cohen proves this.

  2. TheReceptiveHuguenot

    Super liberals on the TB with no love for the cops who saw the video exonerated the police. The Echols case is proof of nothing. More info will come out after his court case is concluded. (That is, if anyone actually cares about the truth.)

    The racism-industrial complex is alive and well in New Paltz. The only problem is the demand for racism outstrips the supply. The more equitable our country becomes, the more frantic are the calls for “equity” and denunciations of “white supremacy.”

    Same thing with bullying. Every article about the New Paltz school district talks about the rampant “racism” and “bullying.” But bullying today is tamer and rarer in every conceivable way than it was in past generations, when it wasn’t even considered an issue school administrators had to be concerned about (they were busy trying to provide an education, not police the social dynamic).

    Everyone knows this but they’re keeping their mouth shut because they’re afraid of being “called out” by a small-group of cultural marxists who calling the tune in this town. Anyone who opposes them is a “white supremacist” in need of “education.” If the person who disagrees is white, they are told they are speaking out of ignorance and really should keep their mouth shut and listen.

    Democracy fail.

  3. tanya

    It is clear from the 2 comments posted that the writers have little understanding of racism and how it operates. Policing was developed in the US in response to slave rebellions and resistance to enslavement even after manumission. Policing was conceived to control and repress people of color who have always been presented as ‘less than human,’ and therefore dangerous. Today the mentality is expressed in the trust for police actions that often kill and more often maim people of color much more so than white people. The disproportionate numbers of people of color incarcerated is far higher than their representation in society. However, they do not do illegal acts any more than white people. It is the perception in society as expressed in the legal system that people of color require more control and by harsher means. Further, smaller acts of illegality most often receive harsher sentences for people of color than for whites. If our alleged system of justice was just we would see huge numbers of middle and upper class whites serving long term sentences for all the illegal acts they do, mainly white collar crime of high significance but the fact that this does not happen proves the point. The more status you have in society, the easier it is to get away with great criminality. All you need to do is look at how often the banks and Wall St get away with great theft and destruction of our economy with impunity. Think about the depression of the S & L debacle of the late 1980’s. I see that as test run for the destruction of our economy that manifested in 2007 and that we have still not climbed out of today, 11 yrs later. We have a president whose hands have been caught in many cookie jars but is still able to avoid prosecution. Even his cohorts who may be prosecuted as a result of the Mueller investigation will serve minimal time compared to very long term sentences for people of color with small amounts of marijuana which are now getting considered legal.

    Every day I read about more cases of police brutality with impunity for cops. The chief of police claimed there was no brutality in the Echols case because the officer got out of the police car and did not look angry. Huh! I watched a police video of a case with a man horribly brutalized by the cops while in custody. The man was passive, handcuffed like Paul with his hands behind his back. The cops threw in on the floor and dragged him by his arms which were behind his back around the police station. His face was cut up badly. He was put in restraining chair with a hoodie on his face and had his pants stripped off him, for humiliation as there was no body search being done and no reason why his pants could not be pulled back on. Ultimately the man sued and received $300,000 in damages. But of the numerous police involved only one was charged. They were calm, laughing and enjoying this brutal and demeaning assault against a single man who is seen in a very passive stance. Such is often the reaction of police after brualizing and manhandling a person. But we have people in New Paltz, mainly white people who just love the cops with whom they identify. There is no making friends with people who have the power of the gun and by definition see select groups of people as dangerous, to be distrusted and therefore approached as suspects all the time. Thus, people of color often say they were stopped for “Driving While Being Black!”

    People of color and those who work with them and bear witness see police as people as representing the racist structure of our country. In the case cited above, the man who successfully sued the police strangely even asked for leniency in the sentencing of the one cop charged. His reason was that he was just a representative of the system that hired him; he was seen as just a cog in the wheel.

    So my request is that people who read this come out to the court in numbers on Monday, March 4. The case begins with jury selection that morning and it is requested by the attorney that people come at 1 PM when the case presentation begins. The case is scheduled to run 3 days thru March 6. So people should come when they can and stay as long as possible to bear witness.

  4. Joy

    When I Asked The Senior Paralegal At Empire Justice In Albany, N.Y What My Basic Human Rights Are As An American Citizen Living In The State Of N.Y., She Replied She Couldn’t Answer, as my question is a philosophical one ! Why isn’t anyone admitting that we are living in a Fascist Society ? Headed Towards Totalitarianism. I wish more was said about our “Rights” and what we need to do to get out from this Post Constitutional Insanity.

  5. village citizen 83 yrs old

    Dont Break The Law, You Will Have No Trouble With The Police.

    In Our Generation We Had Respect For The Police.

    Young Generation Today Think They Can Do What Ever They Want, Many Spoiled Entitled Brats…..

    No Respect For Adults, No Respect For The Law, No Respect For The Police, Spoiled Kids.

    Reinstate The Military Draft……

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