The Town of New Paltz’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative” members held a second online “town hall” meeting on January 27, this being the last opportunity for most residents to provide public input before a draft report is released in March. A considerable amount of the feedback provided was about the group’s process, rather than on what might be included in the recommendations to be forwarded to the town council for action.
Last June, Governor Cuomo signed executive order 203, which calls for collaborative groups like this one to be formed in order to review police practices at the local level; state agencies were not included. Each of these groups must “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.” That plan must be ratified by April 1, or state funding to that government could be cut off entirely. In New Paltz, what’s presently expected is that this plan will be made available to the public in early March, with a third town hall-style meeting set to provide comment on it soon thereafter. Town council members must approve a plan by the end of that month, with their last regular meeting being on March 18.
Randall Leverette, who chairs the collaborative group, framed the January 27 meeting as a listening session, rather than an opportunity to engage in dialogue. Many of those in attendance were of the opinion that engaging in dialogue would not only be more productive, but also more in keeping with the spirit of the governor’s order. As a result, Leverette and other members were drawn into some conversation about the process.
Tanya Marquette finds the group in New Paltz to be “incredibly repressive” compared to those in other nearby localities. In contrast to the facts in New Paltz, Marquette pointed out that in other town’s documents and contact information for all members are available online, and meetings are designed to allow for dialogue rather than being a one-way feedback process.
Liat Guvenc reported that sending emails to the general collaborative address results only in an automated response, and pointed to language in the executive order about including community members “with emphasis in areas with high numbers of police and community interactions.” Guvenc asked that meeting notes and details about the stakeholder groups conferred with be made public.
One collaborative member, Jennifer Berry, early on named a “narrative building up here,” and stressed that the five members of the steering committee are all people of color, and that all of the targeted groups listed in the executive order are represented among them. That “narrative has very little to do with reality of how we are going about our work,” Berry said, then adding, “[I’m] seeing a lot of white faces here questioning the work of people of color to improve the lives of people of color.” Berry claimed to have been “doing racial justice work for over half my life,” and said, “What I’m hearing does not resemble what our committee is doing.”
Among the many faces of color in attendance was that of Galo Vasquez, who urged for more transparency over bureaucracy. Vasquez noted that New Paltz did briefly have a civilian review board with very little authority (as past elected officials have agreed to allow the union contract to govern officer discipline, binding future boards to that decision), and when members of that review board issued a report regarding the conduct of an officer, the report was rejected and the group soon thereafter was disbanded.
Edgar Rodriguez dismissed Berry’s characterization of how the collaborative should and does operate, saying, “Being black isn’t a reason to be undemocratic,” and then used Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas as evidence that race does not confer morality. The guidance document for the executive order “demands engagement and transparency,” but Rodriguez instead predicted that “your secret plan will be railroaded through” once it is released.
A member of Ulster Activists, Maggie Veve, recounted difficulty in obtaining a copy of the current police contract, and asked that the collaborative’s Thursday work sessions be available for viewing online.
Leverette at times also pushed back against thus “narrative” and, like Berry, finds much of it inconsistent with the actual work being done. “I take a little offense” that the group is failing to live up to its charge or that information is being hidden while performing this “thankless task,” the chair said at one point. Leverette outright rejected the idea that they are secretly generating ideas for this report, saying that they are collecting and synthesizing data as they have been directed. Collaborative members are “not empowered to enter into conversations” or answer questions; they instead are compiling input and listing what’s possible as recommendations. If they believe an idea is not possible, they will be laying out why that’s the case.
The working meetings of the collaborative are not subject to the state’s open meetings law, Leverette said, and that privacy is important to “ferret through information” available in departmental records.
Tom Jeliffe expressed doubt that the recommendations would not be prioritized at all, and pointed out that residents raising concerns about process are not “busybodies,” but want to offer input into questions like how the report will be structured as it’s being created and not wait for a draft to be released.
There were also some comments about what to include in a plan about modifying police procedure. Speaking on behalf of a group of New Paltz residents advocating for a responsible budget, Harper Keehn observed that based on the fact that nearly half of arrests occur in the downtown bar district with much of that being late at night on weekends, that it seems that town police are a “publicly-subsidized security force” for tavern owners. Keehn lamented the fact that data prior to 2018 is only available on paper, and wondered how the collaborative members are analyzing those data.
Orelle Feher urged for more mental health services to be provided to officers themselves, presuming that the job is a stressful one. At another point during the meeting, Leverette used mental health as an example of something that cannot be changed at the town level, in this case because services are provided through the county government.
Naomi Allen touched on some of the details from a statement offered by the New Paltz Women in Black for Peace and Justice. It calls specifically for community-based solutions, including town mental health services that would be funded by diverting money from police activity. Other services that could be provided by reallocating police funding would include civilian peacekeepers who would address issues such as noise complaints. The Women in Black also support more transparency when it comes to discipline, the banning of “attack dogs” and removing police officers from schools.
Representatives of the local Quaker group (New Paltz Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends) are finalizing a similar position statement.
Several people called for disciplinary records to be made available to the public and for more input to be solicited into the departmental budget.
Leverette said several times that the mandate on this group is narrow, but that the broader work of building on the report to be issued is likely to be continued by elected officials after the April 1 deadline.