Local officials weigh in on police issues

Over the last week, local elected and law-enforcement officials have spoken out about issues related to policing.

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan penned an op-ed that was posted to the county website and in the Times-Union titled: “The Militarization of Local Police Forces Must End Now.” In it, the West-Point grad and former Army officer writes of the discomfort he felt when, while marching last week with protestors, he saw law-enforcement outfitted like soldiers.

Here’s the full op-ed:

Last week, I joined thousands of peaceful protestors in our community to raise our voices against generations of injustice and systemic racism in our country. Linked in arms with activists, faith leaders, and community members, as we reached the middle of the Mid-Hudson Bridge, we encountered a wall of law enforcement officers outfitted as if they were going to combat. Just behind them, a military-grade armored vehicle stood at the ready.

Over a decade ago, I had used equipment like this in combat, but I never imagined these weapons of war would be pointed at me and a group of peaceful protesters — my own community turned into a war zone.

As protests across the country continue in the wake of the horrific killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black Americans by the police, the White House has threatened to deploy the military domestically and encouraged local police forces to use military weaponry, referring to our neighborhoods as “battlespace” that should be “dominated.” Arming our local police departments with military-grade equipment as if they are going to war is unequivocally not the answer.

As a West Point graduate and Army officer, I have been trained to use these weapons systems and know well what they are capable of. The same military-grade equipment I used while leading troops during my two combat deployments in Iraq has no place in our community.

A bipartisan group in Congress has started a new push to shut down the Defense Department initiative that transfers military weaponry to local police departments. I fully support this effort. Although President Barack Obama cut back the program in 2015 in response to heavily armed police confronting unarmed protesters in Ferguson, Mo., President Donald Trump reinvigorated it in 2017, providing police departments with equipment such as bayonets, grenade launchers, and even armored vehicles. For me, seeing these vehicles — designed specifically for combat — on the streets of my hometown, where I now hold elected office, has been the most stark wake-up call that something is woefully and fundamentally wrong.

No community is immune to the perils and far-reaching effects of institutional racism, and it falls on all of us — no matter your race, gender, or creed — to not just speak up, but to actively self-reflect and fight against these injustices. Our First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly are foundational freedoms that generations of service members have risked our lives to defend. Eliciting violence and using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protestors, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked, is an assault on our democracy and these freedoms. Using military equipment against our own American citizens will only exacerbate, not heal, our divisions in the fight against injustice.

At every level, we must commit to holding police accountable, defending the rights of peaceful protestors, and ensuring we live up to our promise of justice for all. As Ulster County executive, I have made clear that we have zero tolerance for any form of police brutality in our county, full stop.

In moments like this, we must come together as a community and channel the grief, anger, and frustration we are all feeling to push for needed reforms. That can happen only if we engage with each other as human beings, putting aside the riot masks, automatic weapons, and armored vehicles that serve only to reinforce the fissures between law enforcement and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve.

Ending the militarization of our local police forces is just one of the many necessary institutional reforms we must make to heal the fissures between law enforcement and the communities they are meant to serve, but it is one we can and should undertake now. I will not allow my community to turn into a war zone.

—Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan 

 

Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, also a veteran, wrote about the importance of having a diverse department and limiting the use of excessive force before pivoting to a defense of some of the equipment the county executive singled out for criticism. (Here’s a photo of the department’s MRAP [mine resistant ambush protected] vehicle,

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On November 6, 2018 I was elected sheriff of Ulster County by over 42,000 residents. I was entrusted with the public safety of over 180,000 residents, visitors, second-home owners and tourists. Public safety does not have a (D), (R) or (I) after it. The men and women of law enforcement respond to all calls. Since I have taken office, numerous agency policies have been added, upgraded or changed altogether.

In January 2019, this office began diversifying its force to be more representative of the community we serve. We have hired African Americans, Latinos, women and people with disabilities. As an accredited agency, our regular and ongoing training includes topics like implicit bias, procedural justice and uses of force, and has for years. Chokeholds have not been allowed by this agency in over thirty years.

The investigation of complaints and misconduct policy was changed early this year. Our internal affairs investigators hold advanced level certifications and credentials. Members of this agency are held accountable for misconduct, period.

In a recent op-ed, our county executive made his views known on the militarization of the police and the federal 1033 program. He spoke about our MRAP, which we use strictly as a defensive rescue vehicle. In a time of anti-police sentiment in our country, while some of it is deserved, I question the timing of such a topic. The focus should be on how we can work together for real change. We should not be distracted with other topics that can be dealt with later.

The 1033 program was designed to assist law enforcement who could not afford equipment needed to protect not only law enforcement, but the citizens it is obligated to protect. The raw reality is this is still a dangerous world. It is the responsibility of law enforcement to be prepared in the event a critical incident occurs. School shootings, mall shootings, barricaded subjects and natural disasters can happen at any time, some of which have happened here. Important transportation routes, bridges, the Hudson River and the train rails on the Hudson used to transport toxic and dangerous fluids is the responsibility of law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel.

After I took office we got rid of a Humvee and sixteen rifles from the 1033 program. The MRAP is used as a rescue vehicle by our countywide, interagency emergency response team and has no weapons. It is strictly used as our only bulletproof vehicle for transport, rescue or floods. A civilian model “BearCat” often purchased by emergency response teams costs over $250,000. This defensive vehicle is needed and saves taxpayers money. This vehicle can be used for removing children in the event of a school shooting. It can respond to a bomb threat to safely transport bomb technicians closer to the crisis location. It is and has been used for swift water rescue during floods.

This vehicle is not a weapon. The 1033 program does not just provide weapons. It also provides medical equipment like medical kits, bandages, tourniquets, body bags, stretchers, water cans, personal floatation devices and flashlights. Many of these items were and still are given to other municipalities to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Law enforcement is going through some challenging times. We are not perfect and we acknowledge we have serious work to do to continue to build trust in African American, Latino and underprivileged communities. Economics, employment, how we treat each other at the work place, how we hire, how discipline is viewed, how promotions and raises are conducted when it comes to people of color are issues that confront us and need to be addressed collectively. This is not the time for more divisiveness between law enforcement and the community it serves. We need to make concrete steps together.  Change can only come from within. We will look to the failures in policing around the country and continue to bring these lessons back to Ulster County. We look forward to working with the county executive’s office in these endeavors.

—Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa

 

New Paltz’s Police Chief Robert Lucchesi: “George Floyd was murdered; there is no other conclusion to draw. Those officers had a duty to care for Mr. Floyd and they failed.”

Full statement:

Over the last several days, I have struggled to find the words to explain my thoughts on the murder of George Floyd and the greater issue of entrenched systemic racism and inequality that is pervasive in our society — a system that I am a part of. At first, I was hesitant to say anything out of concern that my words would be viewed as hollow, divisive, insensitive or hypocritical. But instead I concluded that saying nothing makes me complicit and allows a system designed to oppress others to continue unabated. I care deeply about our community and realize that as chief of police I need to use my platform to help effect critically needed systemic change.

George Floyd was murdered; there is no other conclusion to draw. Those officers had a duty to care for Mr. Floyd and they failed. I am angry and sickened by the depraved indifference of human life captured in the video. I also realize that my anger about Mr. Floyd’s murder pales in comparison to the anger and rage that black people and communities of color must feel right now. For them, this killing is another stark example of the injustice and inequality within our society. I cannot begin to understand because I am a white male and wear a badge. My privilege shields me and skews the prism through which I view and live in the world.

In the last several years our agency has implemented changes to hiring, training, policy and supervision with the goal of being better servants to our community. We are a New York State-accredited police agency and one of the most diverse police departments in the area, representative of the community we serve. However, we are not perfect. We need to do more; we must do better within our agency, our profession and by our communities if we are going to reestablish trust and legitimacy.

For me, that starts with listening, which is what I did on Saturday [May 30]. I was out on the streets during the peaceful demonstration in New Paltz. The anger and pain I witnessed were powerful, but the listening cannot stop there. I am inviting community members to contact me so I can hear more. I know this will be difficult — introspection and change usually are — and there is no easy solution. I will most likely not have answers to the many questions posed, but I am willing and want to listen to what the community has to say in the hope dialogue can lead to positive change. Please feel free to contact me at the New Paltz Police Department.

—Robert Lucchesi, chief of police, New Paltz

 

Protecting and serving: A statement from the New Paltz Police Department:

The men and women of the New Paltz Police Department appreciate the statement made by our chief of police. However, we feel it is important that the community hears directly from the members of the department as well. We unequivocally condemn the treatment and murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis.

We understand that this horrible incident has caused a great deal of pain throughout our community, state and nation. We want our community to know that we pledge to be instruments of change while continuing to treat all our citizens with fairness, compassion and empathy as we carry out our everyday responsibilities in protecting and serving the New Paltz community. We strive to be the servants of our community needs.

—Members of the New Paltz Police Department

 

Rosendale police chief: “The outright display that was captured last week must never be tolerated or accepted by any member of law enforcement.”

The tragedy that occurred last week in Minneapolis, is just that, an absolute tragedy and one that cannot and will not be justified or accepted. It does not stop with the officer who ignored his oath and took the life of another, nor does it stop with those who did not honor their oath by failing to intercede. Those selfish acts only bring discredit to the hardworking men and women of law enforcement. The same men and women who respond in our times of despair.

I know that the Rosendale Police Department is not alone in our pursuit of professionalism, and we along with many other agencies continue to strive for that level of professionalism through our continued training and experiences. The outright display that was captured last week must never be tolerated or accepted by any member of law enforcement. We fully understand the right of the people to protest and we both support you and stand by you, as what happened here is absolutely wrong.

Our residents know that our community comes first and as such, I am available if you would like to meet and talk about our policing practices.

—Scott Schaffrick, Chief of Police