New Paltz’s town board members has agreed to create a police reform and reinvention committee intended “to create a better future for the New Paltz Police Department and those it serves.” In a further resolution, members of this new committee have been tasked with recommending members of a reconstituted police commission. These decisions came during the board’s July 2 meeting, which was to have been when answers to a variety of policing questions asked during a town hall last month were to have been provided. That did not happen.
Creation of this police reinvention committee is intended to fulfill the requirements of the governor’s executive order calling for a comprehensive review of policing with a particular focus on racial bias. Released with much fanfare and carrying the threat of the withholding of state funding for non-compliance, the order is limited in scope.
It only includes local police agencies, meaning that state troopers, DEC police and university police are among those not being scrutinized. It calls for the “chief executive of such local government” and the head of police, together with “stakeholders in the community” including representatives of the district attorney, public defender and “local elected officials,” to craft a plan “tailored to the specific needs of the community and general promotion of improved police agency and community relationships based on trust, fairness, accountability and transparency, and which seek to reduce any racial disparities in policing.” That plan must be presented to the public and adopted by April 1.
Long list of stakeholders
Reached after the meeting for comment, town supervisor Neil Bettez said that the New Paltz plan is much more extensive than the order actually requires, and that officials “in other towns could easily be done by now.” In addition to the named representatives, this group will have members speaking for a variety of stakeholders, including a religious leader, a college student and a faculty member, a bar owner, the village and school boards, residents of Woodland Pond and Meadowbrook, and members of historically disenfranchised groups including the black community. There are 17 named groups and the possibility for an additional four at-large members in the proposal which was adopted. The members of those groups will be invited to recommend people to participate, and board members would formally accept those members and constitute the commission at the July 16 meeting.
This large group would break into subcommittees, per the proposal, with four areas of focus listed in the document: identifying and addressing systemic racism in policing, review and recommendations of all current police policies, review of the role of the police commission and police oversight, and creating a framework for addressing problems around policing and community protection.
Deputy supervisor Dan Torres, who drafted the proposal, said that the purpose of at-large members would to to help ensure representation for population segments that may have been missed, and to give the opportunity to include non-residents who may be “really additive” because of their particular expertise. If one of the named groups does not provide a recommendation, Torres said, an additional at-large member could be named.
Board member David Brownstein thought it may be worthwhile to focus on the group’s mission itself. Alex Baer emphasized lifted up the need to be mindful of how to communicate about this work. Robert Lucchesi, the town’s police chief, wants to look at how police are used as well as at the police themselves. During the current pandemic, police have been called to enforce social-distancing measures, which chief Lucchesi feels is “really not the purview of law enforcement.”
Much of the conversation around “de-funding” police is an exploration of alternative ways to address social problems, such as not calling armed officers when someone isn’t wearing a face covering. The chief also pointed out that the single-hauler garbage law had no mechanism for enforcement other than calling the police, “putting us in an untenable position.” He anticipates “we’ll be back here in five or ten years” if that is not addressed.
Dan Torres named chair
The town board agreed that committee members should be given leeway in how they organize to address the issues. The board named Torres as their representative, by virtue of which he will also chair this committee. He said that this effort was subject to change as members provide input and if additional guidance is received from state’s budget director, as laid out in the executive order.
The resolution to reconstitute the town’s police commission will end a period of nearly six years when the town board fulfilled the functions of that body, which include fiscal and some disciplinary oversight. That’s the result of a vote to dissolve the commission taken at the last meeting of 2013. During the June 18 town hall on policing, several people had spoken in support of the group’s reconstitution.
The police reinvention committee will recommend memberships to the new commission.
Councilman Brownstein has taken the lead on providing a list of questions asked during the town hall on policing held on June 18, as well as the board’s best attempt at answers. During the meeting on July 2, at which date he’d said that information would be available, he announced a further delay. The reason, he explained, is that the board was seeking “consensus” answers, rather than simply listing the individual opinions of each elected official.
Another town-hall style format is planned for July 9, although the time was not announced; Brownstein said they are also open to discussions occurring out of earshot of police, or elected officials, or both. Residents are encouraged to organize themselves for the purpose of providing feedback, and to “invite us, if you like,” Brownstein said. Alex Baer offered to translate such feedback from Spanish.
Coffee with a cop
As part of its ongoing efforts to hear from the community, the New Paltz Police Department is initiating a monthly conversation, “Coffee with a Cop,” among members of the department, police commission, and the community. These informal gatherings are intended to help bring the department and the public together to discuss ways in which the police can better serve the needs of the community.
The monthly get togethers will be held on the third Thursday of the month, with times and locations varying. There will be two sessions in July — July 9, 9 a.m., at Water Street Market and July 16, 9 a.m. at the Peace Park.