A virtual town hall held last Thursday gave New Paltz residents a platform to take the national conversation about the role of police in society local. The event at the town hall took place a few days after a rap video filmed and posted by town police officer Robert Sisco received widespread criticism for content seen as transphobic and unacceptably political, given that it appeared to be filmed in a police car and with the uniformed officer’s insignia visible.
Members of the town board, along with police chief Robert Lucchesi, were present to listen rather than respond. Questions posed at this session, and presumably at the monthly forums promised for the same topic, will be answered in writing and not in public.
It was the best-attended virtual New Paltz town meeting to date. The Zoom meeting was at capacity with 100 attendees, and people were asked to log off to make room for others once they’d had their say and instead follow along on YouTube. A three-minute time limit was also enforced.
In the end, only about 30 people spoke aloud during what was billed of the first of many such forums. Several people lifted up the idea that not everyone feels comfortable sharing fears and concerns about the police in a public forum. “All of those feelings are welcome,” town supervisor Neil Bettez said at the beginning of the online event.
David Brownstein laid out some general thoughts from the town board prior to the public comments. He said residents should expect a timely and thorough review of policing to ensure that citizens are treated equally and that officers are trained to avoid racism and de-escalate situations. Further, he said, there will be a review of the police commission and of police funding. Might it be proper to reallocate some of the funding received by the police?
The Echols case
Two local incidents came up repeatedly: the case of Paul Echols, who is suing the town after being punched several times by an officer while in custody, and the rap video posted by the self-styled “officer Bob,” Robert Sisco.
Echols encountered police in the bar district in September 2018. He’d been struck in the face by another individual, and reportedly became agitated when police arrested Echols’ friend rather than his assailant. He was himself arrested, and officer Robert Knoth admitted in court to having struck Echols in the face in the back of a police vehicle during that process. Knoth retired shortly before Echols’ trial, when jurors found him not guilty of resisting arrest, though then-town justice Jonathan Katz found him guilty of lesser charges. Police commissioners found in Knoth’s favor when Echols lodged a complaint of excessive force against the officer.
Members of the Concerned Parents of New Paltz, who assisted Echols in finding an attorney, warned that he continues to seek justice. Edgar Rodriguez said, “You had your chance nearly two years ago, and now you confront a federal lawsuit.”
Nate Liebert said that he felt the Echols case was a local example of a pattern of shielding police in America today. Tickets for quality-of-life issues such as open containers of alcohol “is stealing money and doesn’t benefit the community,” said Liebert. It does nothing to build trust with minority populations.
Sisco video gets attention
In a rap video posted to his Instagram account that was later circulated more widely, Sisco appears in his town police uniform in what some believe is a police vehicle. The thoughts expressed which garnered the most attention included: “There’s only two genders and Trump’s still your president” and “Hillary is Killary we all know the reason/where those emails at? We should hang her for treason.”
Other lines include, “Every day I go to work and I put on a badge/but I’d rather use my words than resorting to violence/’cause I’d rather talk to y’all than a blue wall of silence.” He closes the rap with an invitation for dialogue: “Stop lootin’, stop shootin’, stop fires and threats/it only takes two people; I’m first, so who’s next?”
The timing of this video by a black police officer remarking on the gender of trans people came in the context of the racial tensions around police practices. The next day, a Supreme Court ruling strengthening sex discrimination to include orientation and gender identity.
Zoom participation does not require full names be provided, and it was impossible to confirm identity using the chat feature, as it was disabled during this meeting. All names appear here as presented.
The audience at the event expressed a variety of views. Sisco, who has been placed on administrative leave, should be fired immediately in the opinion of a participant named Kieran because expressing “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina” contributes to a dangerous climate for transgender people, one in which “they will experience violence.”
Eve, who identified herself as a trans woman, said that Sisco’s position on gender is not only inconsistent with science according to such experts as Bill Nye, but also “invalidates and dismisses” the experience of trans people. “It’s a deliberate tactic to erase our existence.”
Dylan also identified as a trans person and said that calling police during frequent instances of harassment is never an option that comes to mind. In the trans community, “There are plenty who never had [trust with the police], and don’t want to rebuild it.” Dylan also won’t call for help during a mental-health crisis because of “fear of a cop at my door. It’s not just a couple of bad apples.”
Some came to Sisco’s defense. JB wondered if “ruining [Sisco’s] life” would solve any problems, or was simply “hypocrisy.”
Jess read the text of an online petition to restore Sisco to full duty, signed by over 1600 people as of Monday. It focuses on his track record in making narcotics arrests and provides some personal details.
The police commission
One message that was heard in several forms was discomfort with the current composition of the police commission. The five seats have been filled by the five members of the New Paltz town board since January 31, 2014. The commission has the dual responsibilities of overseeing police budgets and personnel matters. Past supervisors have chafed at its involvement with the budget.
Efforts to preserve a civilian oversight process over police emerged in the form of a citizens’ advisory committee that had no real authority. When that committee met to review complaints filed against officers in the Echols case, their report was never released because state law at the time sealed officer disciplinary records, and no court order allowed them access to those records in the first place. That protection has been recently stripped away by state lawmakers.
The citizens’ advisory committee was since dissolved upon advice of town attorney Joe Moriello, and replaced with a citizens’ advisory board, members of which have yet to be named. Any such body would be limited by protocols agreed to in the police contract, which place disciplinary authority with the chief and lieutenant. The police commission may make additional rules, and is charged with monitoring the “disposition of complaints” against officers. Commissioners’s decisions on discipline and promotions are final, except that hiring and firing rest with the town board.
Resident Don Kerr noted that in the case of Paul Echols’ complaint against officer Knoth commissioners did not decide to revisit the facts of the case based on information revealed during Echols’ trial, such as some of the car cameras not being on during the incident.
“There is still no group to watch the police,” offered Edgar Rodriguez. “Maybe all of you should resign.” Until then, he said, appointing advisory board members who are representative of the committee would be a good start. Tanya Marquette would like to give that power to the advisory board rather than to the town board.
Several people spoke in favor of eliminating police, but to have an independent police commission if that goal is not achieved. Others, like Maggie Veve and Juna Keehn, prefer to eliminate local police by ceding all control to entities such as the sheriff ‘s office or the campus police.
Darmstead identified herself as a former police commissioner, as well as a woman of color and a law enforcement officer. “I think the town board should convene a police commission,” she said.
Diverting police funding
De-funding the police, an emerging concept at all levels of government, means different things to different people. In general it’s understood as diverting funds from police to other services. Some want completely to eliminate law enforcement. Others prefer to retain armed personnel to fulfill at least some of the duties now given to police officers.
Kieran would like to see half the town’s police budget moved into other programs, saying that much of the work asked of police doesn’t need to be done by people with guns. He cited mental-health crises and domestic-violence calls as situations for which he believes police officers are not the best qualified to respond first. He asserted that there was no correlation between the number of police and crime rates.
Erika Olver recounted that police officers were making things worse by searching the apartment and asking about marijuana when she was having a mental-health crisis and being assisted by the rescue squad.
“Please break down the police budget, and have a town hall just for that,” suggested Alex Wojcik, and include state and federal funding figures for that conversation.
Village mayor Tim Rogers acknowledged that elected officials play a role in what police do with the laws they pass. “We get noise complaints,” he said, but passing laws can create a tension between enforcing those rules and “creating awful situations for our constituents.”
Gabrielle Wood echoed some of Rogers’ observation, saying that the laws criminalize pranks and loud music, and lead to targeting of people based on appearing to be likely college students.
Edgar Rodriguez supports the more radical approach of restructuring public safety by eliminating police. Nate Liebert was of a similar mind, suggesting that if elected leaders do not take this step, citizens may “do it ourselves.”
Not everyone supports reallocating funds. Rescue chief Matthew Goodnow believes a conversation on the future of policing may be due, but warned that cutting funding would not help. He’s never observed any racial or other bias exhibited by any officers, he said.
Systemic bias a concern
Emotions ran high during the session. Some people gave accounts of having felt unsafe contacting the police, or unfairly targeted by them. Town board member Brownstein was accused of being insensitive to Jewish and trans people at one point. He clarified that he was reiterating no responses would be given to comments and questions during the town hall, but that all comments and questions are welcome.
Officer Sisco, whose rap video felt like a threat to some, was accused of being anti-Semitic when it was discovered he’d posted some references to Jews during or shortly prior to the town-hall session. Others dismissed those allegations, asserting that Sisco identifies as an Orthodox Jew.
One person who had not used the “raise-hand” feature became agitated and held up a sign reading: “let me speak” until someone noticed and advised town supervisor Neil Bettez. The feature allows the meeting host to quickly identify the next speaker and unmute that person; without it, the supervisor had to page through dozens of images to find the correct individual.
While local issues have become focal points, this is a conversation being held at all levels of government. Ulster County executive Pat Ryan announced the formation of a commission to reform policing practices and promote criminal justice in Ulster County in a statement Thursday. The next day the sheriff’s office and leaders of the county legislature announced there was already a similar body in the county, and suggested it didn’t make sense to have two.
Governor Andrew Cuomo is threatening to hold state aid hostage until plans are in place to address issues of systemic bias in local police forces. He expects police agencies to respond with plans by April 1.
The New Paltz town board has agreed to hold further forums to discuss the issues monthly for the time being.