The tenor of protests nationwide is shifting. Where word of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer first sparked rage and occasionally violence, the message is now being refined into a conversation on the role of policing in communities, including in New Paltz, where a rally and March Sunday precede a virtual town-hall meeting on the subject Thursday.
This year has seen a number of reforms to state law involving policing, including the opening of police disciplinary records to public scrutiny. Governor Andrew Cuomo is now drawing a distinction between public safety and policing in his speeches. Cuomo has laid down a deadline of April 1, 2021 to modernize local police departments or risk having state aid cut off.
Last Sunday afternoon around a hundred activists ranging from just barely toddlers to grandparents gathered in Hasbrouck Park to listen to speakers on questions of policing. They marched to bring visibility to their cause and to discuss strategies for New Paltz. Beneath a bright blue sky dappled with clouds, they listened. The words contained some profanity and some anger, but the event was centered on constructive action.
The Echols case revisited
The stories shared echo the complex relationship with police in New Paltz. The town’s police force is the most diverse in the state for its size, and one speaker acknowledged that in many other towns there would be “30 cops” at such a rally. Other than the occasional drive-by, no police were visible at this event.
The story of Paul Echols was still fresh in the minds of rally organizers. Echols was arrested in the fall of 2018 after a fight that left his jaw injured, and a police officer admitted to striking him several times in the back of a police car. Local police commissioners found that the officer, Robert Knoth, did nothing wrong. He retired shortly before Echols was tried and found not guilty by a jury of the more serious charges, including resisting arrest.
Edgar Rodriguez, of the Concerned Parents of New Paltz — a local advocacy group that helped Echols obtain legal representation — said that a “multi-million-dollar lawsuit” was now pending in federal court on Echols’ behalf. The case was the first major situation reviewed by a newly-created citizens’ advisory board, but the report it drafted was never released because state law at that time blocked making police disciplinary records public without that officer’s consent or a court order.
Rodriguez said the town decision in that case “betrayed the community.” That law, known by its section number of 50A, was scrapped last week.
The Echols incident is held up as evidence of problems in the New Paltz department. But there’s also evidence of how the local police are working to support the right to protest. Police officers worked with the organizers of the May 30 March for Racial Justice to determine how to protect the right to assembly during a pandemic.
After the event, chief Robert Lucchesi released a statement, in which he acknowledged that, “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.” While he sees his department has headed in a positive direction, “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 .… I am willing and want to listen to what the community has to say in the hopes dialogue can lead to positive change.”
Defunding the police
According to Rodriguez, changes would include defunding of town, university, and state DEC police, diversion of some town police funds into the town’s youth program, removal of the police presence from the high school, and the right to review the contract hammered out with the police union.
Rodriguez, a former school board trustee, is presently running for that board again.
“I think it is safe to say everything is on the table, but the first step is to find out what people want, which is why we are having the meeting next week,” town supervisor Neil Bettez recently wrote. The supervisor indicated that Thursday’s virtual town hall on policing would be the next time the police would be discussed in a formal way.
Gowre Parameswaran, who served as chair of the police advisory committee before it was disbanded, recounted her own frustration with the Echols’ case. She said committee members were denied access to the use-of-force policy against which to measure Knoth’s actions and had to rely entirely on an internal police investigation. “I was always told I lived in the most democratic country on earth,” she said, but in fact the United States is “the most violent.” She listed the size of the military, the number of incarcerated individuals, and the wide array of weapons available to police officers. “The target of the police force is everybody,” she said, and particularly black and brown people.
The underpinning of the defunding movement, as Parameswaran explained, was that “every problem begins to look like a criminal problem” if the only people tasked to solve it are police. Echoing Cuomo, she said, “Public safety is not policing.”
Before heading off wielding signs and wearing masks to march for a more equal society, Sunday’s protestors were reminded that significant changes have been made in the weeks since George Floyd was killed. The Minneapolis police department is on the brink of being dissolved, and the National Football League says it’s now okay for players to protest.
The message was that rebellion gets results, and that there is now energy for more rebellion in New Paltz.