At the second New Paltz virtual town hall on policing on Thursday, July 9, most of the attention was focused on the police reform and reinvention collaborative, the New Paltz response to a gubernatorial directive to conduct a comprehensive review of police practices.
Supervisor Neil Bettez was bracing for the same level of interest as the June 18 town hall garnered, when the video-conference platform drew the maximum of 100 attendees for most of the roughly two-hour session. That didn’t happen. Instead, fewer than 20, including elected officials and board members willing to engage in dialog rather than just listening, called in.
The model collaborative drafted by deputy supervisor Dan Torres calls for 21 members representing a number of community stakeholder groups. A handful of the seats are specified in the governor’s executive order, and the rest will be self-selected within those groups. Torres has suggested that members should include members of the town and village boards, a school board member, someone from the youth center or in community education, a member of a group such as the Racial Equity Coalition or the Concerned Parents of New Paltz, members of the student and faculty bodies on the SUNY campus, a religious leader, the police chief or lieutenant, member of a local activist group such as U-ACT or Resisterhood, residents of Meadowbrook and Woodland Pond, representatives of the Tavern Owners Association and the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center, a designee of the district attorney and another of the public defender, and a member of the village’s landlord-tenant relations council. A common theme in the feedback was that the mix of groups proposed may not yield the diverse mix those few persons in attendance desired.
Beyond the usual suspects?
“Rather than approach the collaborative as a simple checklist,” said Daniel Schniedewind, this process “should instead be to insure that those New Paltz residents that are most impacted by policing and are therefore best positioned to address what is not working, make up the collaborative to a degree which is proportionate to their level of interaction with the police.” This would “center people of color,” by Schniedewind’s estimation.
Tom Jeliffe felt that the mission of this group should be centered on race, to keep it in the spirit of the executive order. “Maybe you don’t want to accuse the police or undermine the chief,” he said, “but that is not your call.” He pointed to the four areas of focus proposed as evidence; looking at systemic racism is one of the four, but Jeliffe thinks it underpins all else. He also echoed the call for more black members in particular, rather than “the usual suspects.”
Laid out in the mission is a mandate “to develop a collaborative problem-solving platform for policy and legislative changes . . . related to evidence-based policing strategies,” said resident Tanya Marquette. The proposal “completely whitewashes the intent of this mandate. “To be successful, she said, this coalition should be at least 60 percent people of color, with an emphasis on those doing anti-racism work rather than nice people who don’t understand what racism is.
Torres noted that the focus of this coalition, partially laid out in the governor’s order, could be expanded or modified by the members. “This is not perfect by any means,” the deputy supervisor agreed, and he invited anyone with a better model to suggest it. He was amenable to making the coalition’s charge more explicitly about racism.
A member of an activist group like U-ACT is being sought because, according to Bettez, that participation can tap into wider networks and thus speak for populations not always represented in public discourse.
That Woodland Pond has a high number of police calls was the reason for its inclusion as a stakeholder group. The police respond to calls whenever the rescue squad is needed. Schniedewind noted that residents of the facility may not be representative of senior citizens, vis-à-vis the nature of their interactions with police.
Marquette was more blunt, saying that residents of Woodland Pond “is not part of that demographic at all. Those types of groups should not be sitting at this table.” All told, Marquette would like to “toss the list” and start with a public forum to determine which demographics should be given voice.
Where are the numbers?
Schniedewind praised the fact that this group will be given the “widest possible scope” for its inquiry, particularly in respect to the police budget. A member of a group called New Paltz United for a Responsible Budget, he advocates for redirecting law-enforcement funds to programs as varied as child care and environmental protection. .
Another member of that group, Harper Keenn, laid out demands to cut the police budget by 25 percent for two successive years. He wanted to redirect that money to other services, including a new rapid-response team trained in de-escalation and not carrying firearms, or even called “police.” Keenn echoed a call for the detailed police budget to be released.
Bettez confirmed that something will be made public in response to a freedom of information request made on behalf of a local newspaper. He wasn’t clear how much information about the request itself he could release at that time. In response to the request, budget documents are being reviewed to redact personal information, he said, and the result would likely be posted online after review by the town attorney for compliance with state laws.
Torres said the suggested process “goes above and beyond” asking for recommendations on appointments. The coalition will be specifically asked for recommendations on how to reform the police commission, which was dissolved as of 2014, as well as who to name to it.
A woman only identified by one name, Juna, cautioned against assuming that more training for police officers or commissioners will resolve issues of systemic racism. It hasn’t done so yet, she said. Margaret Human suggested that whatever emerges must be embraced by the entire community for anything to be accomplished.
The prior town hall on policing resulted in many questions and no answers other than a promise to respond in writing. Those answers have been slow to arrive at, as board members can only talk in pairs about town business and they are looking for consensus in the answers posted. The first set has been published on the coalition’s web page, with a promise of more to come.
A message from that town hall is that not everyone with stories to share wants to talk to elected officials or police officers directly. Different ways of reaching out are being tried, including a series of informal chats with the police chief on the third Thursday of the month, with location and time to vary. This coming Thursday, July 16 it will be at 9 a.m. in the Peace Park.
Once it’s up and running, the coalition is expected to conduct meetings in public, and also to organize additional ways to connect with different community members on these issues.