No easy path for activists’ demands for Kingston police reforms, city officials say

Police reform advocates say they’re frustrated by the Common Council’s failure to move ahead quickly with legislation that would make major changes to the makeup and power of the city’s police commission and revamp the process for handling civilian complaints of officer misconduct.

But the city’s top attorney and the Common Council’s majority leader say the proposed legislation would require changes to the city charter, and could be viewed as inappropriate interference with ongoing arbitration talks with the union representing city cops.

The activist group Rise Up Kingston has been pushing for “police accountability” legislation since early 2018, after a pair of high-profile complaints of excessive force by Kingston police ended with the city’s four-member police commission clearing the officers involved of wrongdoing. Since then, the city has adopted several reforms including mandatory review by the commission of all use-of-force incidents, whether or not they result in a civilian complaint. The city also enacted a law requiring officers to inform citizens of the reason for police stops and to hand out cards with their name and a number to call if they feel they have been mistreated.

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But activists are seeking more sweeping change in the form of legislation that they say would increase the independence of the commission, promote transparency in its deliberations and make the body more representative of the community. The legislation, drafted by Rise Up Kingston based in part on police reforms enacted in Rochester, would give the commission a more active role in investigations of police misconduct and remove the police chief and city attorney from the process of questioning complainants. It would also empower the commission to independently investigate misconduct allegations, even when there is no formal complaint. The legislation also includes mandatory training for commissioners and a more transparent process for choosing them.

“The police commission is something that we have legislative power, as citizens, to change,” said Rise Up Kingston spokeswoman Stephanie Alinsug. “And it should be accountable to the citizens.”

While Mayor Steve Noble and members of the common council have endorsed some police reform measures, Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) said that he did not believe the legislation drafted by RUK could be adopted without rewriting the City Charter and placing it up for a public referendum. Kingston Corporation Counsel Kevin Bryant, meanwhile, has said that major changes to police oversight would be inappropriate in the midst of ongoing contract arbitration with the PBA, whose members have been working without a contract since 2016. Scott-Childress added that he was frustrated by the activist group’s unwillingness to sit down with police to discuss mutually agreeable reforms.

“This is a more complicated problem than Rise Up [Kingston] will acknowledge,” said Scott-Childress.

Despite misgivings by the majority leader, Common Council President Andrea Shaut has handed off the Rise Up legislation to the council’s Laws & Rules Committee. The committee, in turn, referred the proposed law to a newly formed Council subcommittee on policing. Shaut said part of the process would involve a line-by-line review by city attorneys to determine if the legislation would require a charter change or run afoul of the city’s labor agreement with the PBA.

“We’re being very careful and we’re looking at this a couple different ways,” said Shaut. “Because we want to make sure that whatever we do will be upheld [in court].”

While the Laws and Rules Committee weighs the activist’s legislation, Mayor Steve Noble has introduced his own plan to enhance civilian oversight of police. Noble’s plan, announced in last month’s State of the City speech calls for the formation of a nine-member police advisory board. The board would be appointed by the Common Council and include representatives from each of the city’s nine wards. It would serve in an advisory capacity to the police commission. Duties would include investigating civilian complaints and making recommendations on discipline and policy to the police commission.

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