Local communities consider police reforms following demonstrations

Protesters at the rally in Kingston. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

“I hear people saying it’s different because there’s a great many more white people involved than in other demonstrations, and it’s not only black people protesting. As many white people protesting as there were black people. This would be a first for me. I’ve seen a million protests all my life. If this can happen in my lifetime, it’ll be great. It’s very encouraging.”
— Sonny Rollins, interviewed from his Woodstock home by Daniel King for The New Yorker

The momentum of American politics has changed in the past three weeks to a degree that very few people would have thought possible, let alone predicted. What started as street demonstrations to support demands for police reform after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has been transformed into a continuous debate in literally thousands of communities about social goals and aspirations on both the national and local levels. There’s no sign of the unrest dying down. There’s never been anything quite like it.

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According to one tracking report, African Americans, who are 13 percent of the United States population, account for nearly 24 percent of Covid 19 deaths where the race is known. Racial disparities among a whole range of indicators continue to increase.  

Where did all that interest and involvement in social change come from? Certainly not from the law-and-order president of the United States and his supporters. The economic effects of the pandemic that locked down the economy, causing particularly devastating job losses to those least prepared for it, sowed the seeds of the backlash. Increased economic inequality negatively affected not just racial minorities but more privileged young white people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. It was startling to see young people who had rejected class solidarity in favor of individual mobility in the Industrial Age embrace community-wide law-enforcement reform in post-industrial times.

One big surprise was how local the whole uprising was. Literally thousands of communities across the entire country saw rallies and demonstrations, practically all locally organized and led. Many of the organizers were young people, often teenagers. Most seemed genuinely surprised by the size of the crowds their events attracted. Whatever “agitators” were there were local.

Success breeds success. Optimism is contagious. Other events followed, engendering a growing sense of common purpose. The movement took on a life of its own. Rallies in Catskill, Hudson, Rhinebeck, Kingston, New Paltz, and Poughkeepsie attracted crowds. Civil-rights advocates didn’t have to go to Birmingham, Selma and New York City to express themselves when their supporters were holding events in Ellenville, Saugerties and Woodstock.

“What started as a renewed demand for police reform has become a country’s awakening,” marveled The New York Times weekend edition. “And all in less than three weeks.”

That didn’t mean that police reform, the original goal of the movement, was relegated to the back burner. It was still the main focus of the local groups, but seen within a wider context than law and order. Shouldn’t law enforcement mean a greater emphasis on helping with individual problems rather than loading up with surplus federal military-style equipment? Was that wider concept of law enforcement not what critics were asking for when they called for defunding or even disbanding the police? 

Woodstock’s town board this past week referred to the need for fundamental changes of thinking. According to reporter Nick Henderson’s account, councilman Richard Heppner told his colleagues that it was time to rethink some of the responsibilities of police officers and to give them better resources to do their job. “We’ve heaped on the cops much like teachers things that aren’t their duties,” Heppner said. Issues of mental health and addiction are becoming more prominent in policing, he added.

“They are half social worker, and in this town they have to be three-quarters social worker,” councilman Lorin Rose quipped.

Policing goals required

New York governor Andrew Cuomo this month issued an executive order – the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative – requiring reform plans from all police agencies that addressed policies, procedures, practices, and deployment, including but not limited to use of force. To continue to get state money, the police agencies must engage stakeholders in an open public process on policing strategies and goals.

At the same time, Cuomo signed a package of bills passed by the state legislature addressing, in the words of a release from assemblymember Kevin Cahill of Kingston, “the deteriorating relationship between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to protect.” Most important of these was the repeal of an exemption from the disclosure of records identifying disciplinary actions against officers. Other measures banned chokeholds, false reports and racial profiling, and increased access to public records.     

Trump approval rating plunges

The national political repercussions of what’s happening have been substantial. Six weeks ago, Donald Trump’s approval rating on Nate Silver’s polling site, 538, showed his popularity underwater by 7.3 points. Three weeks ago he was 10.5 percentage points behind. By this Tuesday, the gap between his approval and disapproval ratings showed him down by 13.5 points. Expressions of concern were coming even from his supporters.  Trump’s stance on Black Lives Matter – that the protesters had turned into looters and that the anti-police demonstrations should now halt or he would send in the military — had negatively impacted his popularity far more than his impeachment had. Do you remember how he was going to deal with protest? He was going “to dominate the battle space.” 

The president’s default strategy has always been to praise his administration’s management of the economy and the resultingly low unemployment rate. With the job losses caused by the pandemic, that argument lost a lot of its credibility. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell’s assessment that millions of jobs wouldn’t come back after the shutdown ended and that “it could be some years before we get back to those people finding jobs” didn’t help. Trump replied that “The Federal Reserve had been wrong so often,” and predicted a quick recovery.      

In the week May 28-June 3 week, Trump’s favorability ratings had dropped eleven percent among whites, nine points among blacks, 14 points among Asians and Pacific Islanders, and six points among Latinx people. Noting the magnitude of the one-week shift, research director Robert Griffin of the Democracy Fund wrote, “These changes were striking. While public attitudes are typically quite stable, the country is experiencing an almost unprecedented level of civil protest – hundreds of gatherings and events taking place even in small cities. At a time when so much in American politics feels deadlocked, this is the kind of major event that can reshape how America thinks.”

The jobs that have been lost are not coming back by magic. On a more practical local level, Ulster County executive Pat Ryan’s Ulster 2040 task force has been crafting a county realignment plan to create new jobs. Ryan predicts the group’s report will soon recommend continued workforce development, attention to agribusiness, green technology, energy innovation, creative design and advanced manufacturing. He sees TechCity as a significant potential site for clusters of such activities.

Kingston moves ahead

Within Ulster County, Kingston has seen the largest protests and the most ambitious efforts in behalf of police reform. And it looks as though that reform is moving ahead. The appointment last week of Minya DeJohnette, a woman of color and healthcare provider, to a vacancy on the city’s police commission is a significant signal. 

A three-alderman special policing subcommittee of the Common Council’s laws and rules committee has been laboring for about a year on a complex proposal to revise the practices of the police commission. Serving on the special subcommittee with chair Rita Worthington have been members Jeffrey Morell (chair of laws and rules) and Reynolds Scott-Childress (Common Council majority leader). 

According to all three of its members, the policing subcommittee had encountered stiff resistance from the city government’s own lawyers, who contended that change proposals needed to await the settlement of protracted contract negotiations between the city government and the union representing the approximately 75-person police force. The Common Council may now try to include in next year’s city budget an item providing it its own legal advice.

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“I am optimistic – finally,” said Worthington, one of the speakers at the recent Academy Green rally. “We gotta keep it going. We want to be on the side of righteousness.” She expressed satisfaction that mayor Steve Noble finally appeared to be on board when it came to police misconduct toward people of color. That “our white brothers stood with us” at the Kingston march and elsewhere was “a huge statement,” she said.

Morell said he was in no way anti-police, citing his support for additional police training. He too was hopeful of further reform. “I think that we now have the majority,” he said.

Majority leader Scott-Childress, whose job includes sounding out his colleagues, said he had not yet counted noses. But he expressed confidence that the votes for the policing subcommittee’s initiatives would be there.

There are 5 comments

  1. Victor E OfThePeople

    Instead of reforming the police, how about people start obeying the laws that are on the books. If you don’t like the law, contact your local legislature to change the law. Vote out the lawmakers you don’t like and vote in the lawmakers that agree with your viewpoint

    I hate to break this to you, but walking around holding up signs, accomplish nothing!

  2. Bill H

    The reform that we are calling for is reasonable. For police that use excessive force to be held accountable, for police departments and DA’s offices that protect such rogue cops, instead of protecting the public from such cops, to held accountable. And, there is the glaringly obvious demand that the police, and nearly all systems in this country, treat blacks folks and other people of color as equal to white folks.

    Victor, you are wrong about protesting accomplishing nothing. I am not sure how you can have learned about history, and also being reading the news today (unless you only watch Fox News and hand select your social media), and think protesting accomplishes nothing. Perhaps it will not change YOUR mind, but changes are happening already, including legislation, in response to only three weeks of protests… nationwide protests. Get involved. See what is really being argued in this movement, not just what is being argued on our signs.

    Spend some time with this article (you don’t have to agree with all of it for it to be useful): https://www.vox.com/2020/6/17/21284527/systemic-racism-black-americans-9-charts-explained

  3. RJ Hirsch

    Dear Neighbors, I just came across an article by DJ Cashmere, and four pages in read the following, and had a loud CLICK:

    “…….. the [right wing extremist] movement was transforming. Quite intentionally, the neo-Nazis were becoming less obviously threatening in order to become more dangerous. As Christian Picciolini, another former who was in the movement at the same time as Martinez, once told NPR, “our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American White racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll

    to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.”

    This is important information; how much it informs the painful situations we are facing with police violence against
    citizens we need to note.

  4. Officer J. Friday

    The answer is very easy; take away the guns. Police do not need to be armed, at all. In England, local police, known as bobbies, walk their beats, with only “night sticks”, and are otherwise unarmed. If, a situation calls for extreme force, then a highly trained, weaponized “swat” team is called in. The average local police do not need to be armed, and should not be. So, there you have it, the answer that is staring you in the face for proper police reform, eliminate guns from the equation. As a side benefit, the money saved, by taking weapons of death out of the hands of police officers, along with the misaligned expenses of firearm training, would be quite advantages to all our communities, which in turn can be used in anti-violence and race sensitivity training. Let’s reel-in this militarization of police, and get them trained to actually “protect and serve”, the communities they canvas, instead of being trained to act out, that everyone is a “perp”, especially our black and brown neighbors. Policing rarely, if actually ever, needs deadly force, particularly when the “victim” is running away. Only cowards shoot someone in the back. Disarm the police, NOW!

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