Key members of the Common Council have expressed support for an activist group’s push for major changes to the makeup, training and operations of the city’s police commission.
But the City Charter — and ongoing contract talks with the Kingston PBA, the union representing the city’s cops — could complicate the effort.
Under the current City Charter, the police commission is made up of three city residents appointed by the mayor, who serves as chairman. The chief of the Kingston Police Department serves as the commission’s secretary. The commission is responsible for hiring, firing and discipline and is also charged with making recommendations on police policy and procedure. When officers are accused of misconduct, the department’s deputy chief conducts an investigation and then presents his findings and recommendations to the commission.
Since early this year, the activist group Rise Up Kingston has been in talks with members of the Common Council’s Laws and Rules Committee about revising the makeup of the commission, instituting training for commissioners and reforming the civilian complaint process.
“We need a police commission that is more representative of the people in our community who are the most heavily policed,” said Rise Up Kingston Executive Director Callie Jayne.
The group has produced model legislation that was adopted from reforms recently enacted in Rochester. The proposal was drafted into legislative form by Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3). The proposal would replace the current four-member commission appointed by the mayor with an 11-member body appointed jointly by the mayor and the Common Council. The expanded commission would be made up of three residents of each of the city’s three county legislature districts. Two at-large members would be drawn from a section of Midtown Kingston that has been allocated extra police resources based on crime data analysis.
The legislation would also mandate that police commissioners undergo training in a range of topics pertinent to their position. Issues covered in the draft legislation include “implicit bias” — the tendency of people to unconsciously stereotype others based on race, age and other factors and police use of force guidelines. Commissioners would also be trained to carry out an “independent and objective” investigation into claims of police misconduct.
The proposed legislation would also reform the complaint process by allowing investigations to move forward based on available evidence, even if the complainant declined to be interviewed by the mayor and police chief. The commission would be empowered to carry out independent investigations of any conduct by a KPD employee and would be given the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence, as well as access to all case files and other data maintained by the department. The legislation would also require the commission to post detailed reports on civilian complaints on the city’s website and establish a new “discipline matrix” laying out sanctions for different types of misconduct. “We really think these are common-sense things,” said Jayne.
In addition to Scott-Childress, the concept of reforming the commission has support from First Ward Alderman Jeffrey Ventura Morell and Ninth Ward Alderwoman Andrea Shaut. In January, Shaut will take over as the city’s first alderwoman-at-large and Common Council president.
“It is about the safety of our community,” said Shaut in an email. “We have folks who do not feel safe, and it is our duty to take that seriously.”
Scott-Childress said he sees the reform efforts as a way to flesh out details of how the commission should operate that aren’t addressed in the charter. Scott-Childress said the draft legislation could be the starting point for a wider public conversation that would include more stakeholders and rank and file members of the Kingston Police Department.
“We can’t just negotiate with one activist committee,” said Scott-Childress. “We have to talk to the people of Kingston at large and make sure we end up with something that the community can feel proud of.”
But any effort to significantly reform the commission’s makeup or powers faces a number of hurdles. Some of the changes sought, like implementing training for commissioners, could be accomplished through executive decree. But others, including giving the council a say in the commission’s appointment process, would likely require revision of the City Charter and a public referendum. Other elements of the legislation dealing with police discipline could also qualify as negotiable items under the city’s labor agreement with the Kingston PBA. City cops have been working without a contract for nearly four years. After rank-and-file officers narrowly rejected a contract proposal, the parties declared an impasse. The contract dispute is now in binding arbitration.
Kingston Corporation Counsel Kevin Bryant said he believes sweeping changes to the commission and discipline protocols could complicate the arbitration process and should wait until the current contract dispute is settled.
“We should not be introducing something that has to be negotiated [with the PBA] at this late stage in the process,” said Bryant. “It’s just too late.”
Mayor Steve Noble said he has not yet seen the draft legislation. Noble said however that he agreed with some of the concerns expressed by the activists, including the current lack of training requirements for commissioners. Noble also questioned whether the commission as it is now is large enough to effectively represent the entire community.
“I think there are issues with the way the current police commission is made up,” said Noble. “And I look forward to having a community conversation about how we can make it better.”