Robert Sisco, suspended from duties as a New Paltz police officer and at risk of losing that job altogether for reasons that have not been made altogether public, this week agreed to an exclusive interview.
Slices of Sisco’s behavior on the job have gotten considerable public scrutiny, beginning when the officer recorded a rap video while on duty in a town police vehicle. Against a backdrop of coast-to-coast protests against the killing of George Floyd and other black men by law enforcement officers, reaction to the freestyle lyrics posted by Sisco — who is also black — was swift: they were branded as trans-phobic and treasonous by some, while others marched down Main Street after the officer was placed on administrative leave, as an expression of support. An attempt at termination was rejected by an independent arbitrator; Sisco then signed what’s been called a “last chance” agreement under which, if the officer “engages in conduct the same or similar to” what was laid out in the original notice of discipline — essentially, posting on social media and bringing the department into disrepute — over the next four years that it could result in termination without the normal contractual protections; only the arbitrator would get to weigh in. When Sisco read a detailed apology during a town council meeting, a member of the trans community expressed belief in the officer’s sincerity. More recently, a local woman claimed to have been sexually harassed by the officer while on duty, and last month town council members moved to terminate Sisco under the terms of that agreement, seemingly because of a new series of instagram posts that include admissions of cannabis use and hints about a documentary being filmed to expose unspecified police corruption. Sisco believes that it was those allegations that have led to being targeted and not just for potential termination: the inventory of Sisco’s rifle business was confiscated under the state’s “red flag law” and has not been released despite a judge ordering the weapons be returned.
Recently, at a table in the back of a pandemic-quieted McGillicuddy’s, Sisco sketches out a mechanical concept. “It’s a design to increase the payload of a drone, so it can carry more water to fight forest fires.” The numbers, the patterns and how all the pieces fit together come easily to mind and get translated into a notebook. When something complex to many people comes easily to someone else it is sometimes labeled genius, but not always. “I just call it my ‘tizzy.’” Whether there’s a label for it or not, it’s clear after very little time that Sisco has a strong grasp of mechanics, numbers and patterns. Another gift to which the man lays claim is a very accurate memory, which apparently served Sisco well in providing testimony pertaining to undercover drug operations, undertaken as a New Paltz representative to the Ulster County Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT).
Sisco’s memory, along with assertions during this interview about law enforcement operations, could not be easily corroborated due to the secrecy typically surrounding both ongoing police investigations and anything that relates to personnel. Efforts to corroborate the information are ongoing.
Despite being in a position described as “unemployable” and unable to leave the country due to the outstanding legal issue around firearms, Sisco appears to be at ease while detailing plans for the future. At the moment, those plans include going to Israel under that nation’s law of return, which opens the way for residency and also citizenship to Jews and those married to them. Sisco has a Sephardic Jewish heritage, and practices an orthodox form of that religion. In Israel, Sisco hopes to serve in the military for six months.
The work with URGENT, according to Sisco, was focused on “the killers of youth” such as heroin, xanax and fentanyl and particularly on the suppliers of those drugs. Working at a pharmacy prior to entering the police academy provided Sisco with a particular type of experience that was valuable for the work of enforcing drug laws. Sisco holds to the view that cannabis is not a “gateway drug;” the idea that it is has been challenged widely, including in a report that was largely authored by Eve Walter of the Benjamin Center, who is also currently a county legislator.
During the initial uproar around Sisco’s rap video, the people marching in support were confronted throughout that walk by others who sought to disrupt the action with, among other tactics, calls of “black trans lives matter” amplified loudly enough to drown out anything the supporters might attempt to say, or even efforts to organize. When it was announced last month that town leaders would be pursuing termination, those who came to the man’s defense called out what was believed to be a double standard, with a black officer receiving harsher treatment for words than a white officer who had admitted to punching a handcuffed suspect. “When the public comes to my aid, it shows when a cop cares,” said Sisco. That support has included an email from Andrew Kossover, former public defender for the county, calling Sisco “an honorable member of law enforcement” back in June, when the rap video came to light. In contrast, Sisco characterized the treatment being doled out by local officers and leaders as “lies — there’s nothing in my past, no evidence of crime. They’re scared.” Specifically, that fear is something Sisco believes stems from knowledge of corruption in the town’s police ranks, knowledge bolstered by that purportedly remarkable memory.
Sisco is not providing any details about this alleged corruption, saying only that it is “anything that you think happens.” This is because of the documentary Sisco is presently filming on that very subject. An offer to town officials to sign a non-disclosure agreement in return for a sum of money was declined, according to Sisco. Details about the content, funding and anything else regarding the documentary were declared off-limits as ground rules for this interview. What Sisco did do was express the opinion that the idea that officers serve and protect has been replaced with a “fear and conquest mentality” instead. “I talked many people into cuffs. I have never beaten anyone, or used my baton or taser or fired my gun. I treat people with respect.”
Kossover’s email to members of the town council last summer corroborates Sisco’s assertion about treating people with respect. Several of Kossover’s clients agreed to work with Sisco’s investigations as a member of URGENT and the attorney wrote that “Sisco treated those clients fairly and respectfully and always remained engaged in the case until the very end,” to ensure that whatever deal they had agreed to was honored in the district attorney’s office. Furthermore, Kossover reviewed ample video footage of Sisco and other officers in action, and maintained that even when the officer was unaware of being filmed that “Sisco treated the suspects (students, people of color, some intoxicated, some high on substances, some belligerent) with respect and courtesy. The same cannot be said for many other law enforcement–civilian encounter videos (NPPD and other agencies) I’ve seen over the years.”
The minimum age to be a police officer needs to be raised to at least 25, Sisco believes, so that new officers have some life experience and hopefully empathy, not just a college degree. Many officers do not value training in “verbal judo” and other de-escalation techniques and are thus unprepared to use them. Maturity, not education, should be central to police reform. “I had a life before being a cop. Six months [in a police academy] is not enough time to prepare. If someone fails field training because of something like aggression toward women or minorities, they should not be a cop.” Sisco went on to say, “A 21-year-old doesn’t know how to communicate. How can they empathize and relate, without life experience? Take ten minutes to solve a ten-year-old problem?” Another proposed option: only allow parents to be police officers, “to prove they can multi-task,” or at least require that officers “not live with their parents” because, “It’s a career, not a job. You don’t want people who settled on this as their third option.”
The circumstances of Sisco losing the weapons associated with Black Mamba Rifle Co. — and that source of income — are a bit murky. Sisco acknowledges that some sort of marital disagreement was occurring, and that police officers arrived at their home and thereafter invoked the red-flag law provisions to confiscate all of the weapons until the situation could be reviewed by a judge. Asked what may have caused the police to be called to the residence, Sisco suggested being targeted due to this unspecified knowledge about police corruption. Again, the claim is that no law has been violated. Town officials have hinted in public that Sisco may cause harm with those weapons. Sisco says the “raid” occurred “the day after I threatened to expose them” during an exchange with Chief Robert Lucchesi, during which Sisco does admit to expressing anger.
An email to Chief Lucchesi, requesting comment on or corroboration for Sisco’s allegations of corruption in the department, was not responded to by press time.
Sisco now claims to be in a position of being very close to destitute because both salary and business revenue have been cut off, while trying to support four children.
Born in New Orleans to a go-go dancer, reared in Newburgh, Sisco’s had a “rough and blessed life” in the man’s own words. “I’m just a human being,” one who struggled with depression and the fact that anti-depressants sometimes make that condition worse, until exploration beginning with CBD products led to the strains of cannabis that provide relief, that “gives me balance and clarity.” Sisco denies allegations of selling the plant in recent years (although admits to having been both a drug dealer and a gang member prior to pursuing a pharmacy career), but does acknowledge giving it away “to prevent suicide.”
The story around that now infamous rap video has surprising twists and turns. “I was bored” while on duty, Sisco admits. After posting it, the officer took it down again quickly, only to re-post it a couple of weeks later. The lyrics include “Just because I’m a cop it doesn’t mean that I’m bad/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,” which Sisco points to as evidence of a desire to do right in the community.
Framed largely as being anti-trans for the lyrics “There’s only two genders and Trump’s still your president/Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina,” Sisco performed community service in addition to issuing an apology after it became public. What Sisco did not do — until now — was publicly identify as trans, and saying that the purpose of the rap was a deliberate challenge to a variety of gender and political stereotypes. While not feeling particularly safe to be out in New York, family members understand that there are times when Sisco prefers to go by the name Vulvi Vølvi, and dress in a manner to reflect that identity. Family members “know who I am.”
Nevertheless, when the rap was labeled as trans-phobic, Sisco sought to understand and learn from the experience. “That’s why I apologize — I educated myself. I am more educated about it than [town leaders].”
The political content of the rap included a declaration, “Trump’s still your president.” That was true at the time, Sisco notes; prior to 2017 the man supported Obama as the sitting president, and as of 2021, Biden. “I supported Trump as the current president; why would I wish for the downfall of America? I believe in breaking bread with the other side.”
Sisco feels that there have been efforts to “jam me up” in attempts to recover from that error in judgment. “That rap had 30-thousand views, but my apology had 34. They were supposed to post on social media, but never did.” Part of that mea culpa was a desire to create a shelter or center for trans youth; Sisco has been eyeing the soon-to-be-vacated town court space on Plattekill Avenue for that purpose, but instead of offering support, “they’re getting rid of their most diverse police officer.”
As for the allegations of sexual harassment, Sisco is confident that there is nothing actionable there; a source familiar with the investigation suggested that any grounds to terminate the officer are not related to that complaint.
“I didn’t want any of this out,” Sisco says. “I still can’t say all I want to say. I want to be judged on my merits.”