Long-simmering racial tensions erupted in an unprecedented way in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. In New York State, the political response included stripping away some protections granted to shield police officers’ disciplinary history as part of a broader package of reforms, and a mandate from the governor’s office to take a deep dive into how policing is done within municipalities.
Executive Order 203, the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, directs leaders of local governments “to review of current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures and practices, and develop a plan to improve such deployments, strategies, policies, procedures and practices, for the purposes of addressing the particular needs of the communities served by such police agency and promote community engagement to foster trust, fairness and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”
There are stiff consequences for ignoring the order and a lot of details in the text. Differences among communities are emerging. In many localities, work on police reform which began earlier will now unfold in the context of this executive order.
That policing review must include “members of the community, with emphasis in areas with high numbers of police and community interactions; interested non-profit and faith-based community groups,” as well as members of the criminal-justice complex and elected officials. A plan to implement the community recommendations must be presented to the public for comment and then adopted by April 1, 2021, at which time and the state budget director “shall be authorized to condition receipt of future appropriated state or federal funds upon filing of such certification for which such local government would otherwise be eligible.” In short, state and federal funding might dry up.
Not covered in the executive order are state-level police agencies, including the state troopers, university police and officers of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
With approaches that vary between lean and comprehensive, top-down and bottom-up, local leaders so far have been taking this gubernatorial directive seriously and approaching it in ways fit the unique character of each community. It will be many months before members of the public get to say if they think the work produced will contribute to lasting improvement, but the effort will ensure that state aid isn’t cut off.
The city’s obligations under Executive Order 203 are to be called “the re-envision public safety task force,” according to a statement released from mayor Steve Noble’s office. A task force “will review and collect new, innovative recommendations and modernizations and provide a concrete plan.” A call to the city’s communications director seeking details on how task-force members will be selected was not returned.
It’s possible the selection process will follow the lead of the standards Noble signed into law July 8 calling for the city’s police commission to be reflective of the city’s diversity, appointed through a transparent, inclusive and widely-publicized process. Commissioners have the power to recommend changes to policies and practices in the police department and to investigate police officers whether a complaint has been filed or not. They are expected to “seek and participate in a broad range of training annually,” including in the areas of law, bias, crisis intervention, police procedures, evidence collection, discipline and arbitration, among others.
The mayor acts as chair of this police commission, and until recently the chief of police was its secretary. Chief Egidio Tinti was released from those duties, and a commission member will be appointed to replace him. Noble recently appointed a member of a minority, acupuncturist Minya DeJohnette, to the commission.
Executive Order 203 directs the state’s budget director to “promulgate guidance to be sent to all local governments” laying out how to implement the directive. Woodstock town supervisor Bill McKenna’s waiting. He’s been in contact with other local supervisors, and reports that “none of us has seen further updates on that. I’d like to see that before finalizing” plans.
McKenna said he was “mentally formulating membership of that committee,” and expects to appoint them in the next couple of weeks. The supervisor expect the committee to include “a councilperson or two,” the police chief and possibly a training officer who works with more than one police department. Included will be “members of the public, including someone from a religious organization.”
McKenna said, that he was “just looking for intelligent people who are about our community, and want to see it improve.” What he hasn’t done, absent that promised guidance, is come up with a name for the group.
McKenna, part of Woodstock town government for 17 years, has had a hand in hiring or promoting just about everyone serving on the town’s police force today. A question he asks of every potential hire, he said, is whether they are willing to act as social worker or psychiatrist while on duty, if necessary. “That’s the tone we expect,” he said.
Officers are also expected to follow a code of conduct which passed two or three years ago, in the supervisor’s recollection.
Talking to people in the community, “I came away feeling pretty lucky to live in Woodstock. We have a pretty decent police department.” Chief Clayton Keefe met with organizers of the recent rally for racial equity in policing, and McKenna reports that it was a “good conversation about the police,” and that “most agreed they are lucky to live in this town.” At the same time, “I’m a huge believer that anything can be improved.” Improvement starts with engaging people from all segments of the population.
Supervisor Fred Costello Jr. will be convening a police reform commission to create “a task force of community members who will independently solicit community response and recommendations in August.” Anyone interested should send a letter of interest to his office by July 17. The task force will “reflect the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our Saugerties community,” according to a press release.
Costello thinks a seven-member task force would be ideal, and that it should be no larger than nine. “If we make the committee too large, it’s difficult to be productive,” the supervisor said, “but we have not committed to a specific size yet.” Costello finds that his town has been blessed with “a talented populace, willing to step up and with the community.”
The task is complex. “This is not a project that will be over in a month,” Costello said. “We want to make it a manageable size, and diverse reflection of the community, to take a critical look at our police department and policies and procedures to make sure they fall in line with expectations.”
The supervisor expects both positive and negative feedback about the police. A format not tied to a specific incident will help provide officials “understand the average perspective about the police department,” which he considers a good exercise. “We think we are addressing these things, but that’s not enough,” he said. “We want a broad view.”
Rosendale town supervisor Jeanne Walsh is of a mind with Costello. “I thought seven a good number, but a group of concerned citizens wanted more.” It was agreed to add two more members. Walsh said that she’s reached out to six and expects a seventh to be named by the district attorney. There is a call for applications to fill the two remaining slots.
No one will be named until the August 12 town-board meeting, and as a result the names of the individuals already approached are not being released yet. According to a statement released June 30, the appointments were intended to begin at the July 8 meeting. The supervisor said the individuals she’s spoken to include a minister, someone representing a local nonprofit, and an organizer of the June 27 rally in support of black lives.
Rosendale police chief Scott Schaffrick was invited to speak. He made some remarks. Later on organizer, Maria Rigden called him back to the mic, saying that the invitation for the chief to participate had been conditioned on him specifically saying “’black lives matter.” She said she couldn’t walk away from this event “knowing you didn’t say that.”
Shaffrick returned to the stage. The reaction of the crowd was swift. “What you asked me to do…,” he began, and the jeers were swift to follow. He switched gears to say, “All black lives matter, absolutely they do.”
As the catcalls intensified he said, “I just said it, now if you’ll let me finish …. We are all together members of the human race …. All black lives matter, absolutely. Every life matters, which is what I was asked not to say.”
He continued to try to explain his willingness to sit down with and work with anyone in the community. He wrapped up with “Thank you for your time” when it became clear his words were not being welcomed. In one picture from the event, Rigden can be seen crying in the background while Schaffrick delivered his additional remarks.
“What I did not understand at the time that I spoke was that their use of [the] word systemic was not being directed at every member of law enforcement, but rather at the system itself,” the chief wrote in a statement released June 30. “I admit that I was wrong in my understanding, and now in hindsight I understand why many were upset with what I said.”
“I know some people won’t be happy, and others are okay with it,” said Walsh. “I think it was a heartfelt apology. I have had many conversations with the chief, and he expressed he is open and ready to work with the public to help make police reform an easy process with the town. That’s what we’re looking for, and he is open to doing that.”
Police reform in New Paltz, as in Rosendale, is taking place in the context of a local flare-up of tensions. In New Paltz an on-duty officer, Robert Sisco, filmed and posted a rap that many feel included transphobic and even treasonous lyrics, including a declaration that only two genders exist, and the opinion that Hillary Clinton should be hanged for treason, among less incendiary thoughts. Pursuant to the current police contract, all the police chief could do is refer the Sisco matter to an arbitrator with a recommendation for discipline “up to and including termination.”
The police commission in New Paltz was actually dissolved as of 2014, and the town board has been fulfilling the fiscal and disciplinary duties of that body ever since. An attempt to create a civilian review board ran afoul of section 50(a) of the civil service law; when that review board took a look at the case against officer Robert Knoth last year when he was accused of using excessive force on Ellenville resident Paul Echols, they were inadvertently granted access to documents which they shouldn’t have seen under that law, and their report was not released at the time for that reason.
Now, the so-called “New Paltz Police Reform and Reinvention Committee” is going to be asked, in addition to conducting the review ordered by the governor, to provide recommendations as to who to seat on a reconstituted town police commission.
Unlike the other communities surveyed, the New Paltz plan is to go large: 21 members, most of which will be self-selected by a number of stakeholder groups, with the supervisor’s appointments simply validating those choices. At a meeting this week, the proposal received a lot of scrutiny, particularly around defining those stakeholder groups and articulating the charge of the committee.
The larger size is seen as necessary to reach into those groups that are most impacted by police interactions, with the idea that members would break into subcommittees to make it more workable.