Woodstock police reform group likely to present recommendations in March

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The Woodstock Police Reform and Reinvention Committee discussed a broad range of recommendations for issues including accountability, mental health issues, public access to records and bias training as it prepares to make a presentation to the town board in March.

Woodstock’s committee, formed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s order last summer, is required in the roughly 500 municipalities in the state that have their own police department. It was a reaction to the police beating of George Floyd and several other incidents and requires steps to eliminate racial inequities and a modernization of police strategies.

Communities must adopt new policies by April 1 or risk losing state funding for their police departments.

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“These are just the core recommendations,” said town councilman and town board liaison Reggie Earls at the February 11 committee meeting held via videoconference.

Each subcommittee, comprising accountability, technology, mental health and youth, presented preliminary recommendations.

“There are going to be longer introductions going into detail and expounding upon our reasons for the recommendations. But today is just to get the meat, or the tofu, if you will, of our recommendations.”

Group members are Tamara Cooper, Anula Courtis, Reggie Earls, Vanya Gottardello, Jonathan Heppner, Police Chief Clayton Keefe, Rachel Marco-Havens and Robert Nuzzo.

Accountability

Ulster County Legislature Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner, who represents Woodstock, presented nine recommendations on accountability.

First, the police department, with the support of the town, will complete the application for state accreditation within one year of the committee’s report adoption.

The long-dormant police department website will be reactivated and either maintained as part of the Town of Woodstock website or as an independent site.

The monthly report of incidents produced by the police department will be made available on the website.

The Woodstock Town Board will provide the necessary funding for all new Woodstock Police Department (WPD) hires to receive a psychological evaluation, polygraph test and a fingerprint-based background check.

Currently, the new hires shoulder the expense of the background check, Heppner said. The police department estimates the cost of checks and evaluations at $700 per new hire and the department hires between two to three officers per year.

The officer complaint form should be made available on the department website and the received complaints should be automatically sent via email to the police chief and Town Board members. 

“We support the technology subgroup’s recommendation that the town board seek quotes for body cameras and actively participate in researching federal and state grant opportunities for the cameras and data storage,” Heppner said of one recommendation.

The Woodstock Town Board should adopt a policy that at least one town board member and a sitting member of the Town of Woodstock Human Rights Commission must be in attendance for officer candidate interviews.

The Woodstock Town Board should establish a Woodstock Community Police Advisory Committee that includes representatives from the community, town board and Woodstock Police Department by the end of 2021.

The subcommittee supports the department updates to the hiring policy and recommendations for updating the Use of Force Policy.

“One thing that seems difficult for people is to hold each other and themselves accountable,” said Cooper in response to the recommendations.

“How they do that sometimes is a matter of training. So I don’t know if there’s a training down the pike that focuses on how one holds another officer accountable and how does one learn to hold oneself accountable.”

Heppner said the subcommittee can look into available training.

Data, technology and transparency

Committee member and Human Rights Commission chair Anula Courtis shared recommendations from the Technology Committee, which was renamed to include the expanded scope of data, technology and transparency.

“We support the recommendation that monthly reports produced by the Woodstock Police Department be made available on the website,” she said.

She added police policies and procedures should also be posted on the website, as well as officer training outlines.

Officers should be introduced to the community in the form of picture and small bio “so people are familiar with who our officers are.”

Complaints should be accepted digitally through the website.

A policy should be established for the use of body cameras once they are in use.

Within one year after selecting a body camera vendor, the cameras should be in use.

The website should use best practices to ensure ADA compliance.

Mental health

Family of Woodstock Program Director Tamara Cooper presented the recommendations for how to handle mental health calls and situations.

The department should increase the number of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) certified officers by 25 percent in one year and have all officers trained by 2024, she said.

The department should make it a policy to use CIT-trained officers to respond to emotionally charged situations.

The department should include racial bias training for all officers and personnel.

The department should include procedural justice training on impartial or equal enforcement of the law for all officers.

Increasing frequency of in-service refresher training is important because “many of the topics under consideration need repeated examination if systemic change is to be realized,” Cooper said.

The subcommittee recommended developing or continuing to develop officer wellness including an emphasis on trauma recovery for officers “so that trauma experienced by officers in the field are addressed in a way that moves people towards a recovery.”

Cooper said the department rules and regulations are out of date, having been last revised in March 1997 and need an overhaul.

“Community policing, bias, sexual harassment, how to respond to mental health calls among other sections, really need to be updated. An up-to-date manual provides guidance not just for police personnel but also for the community at large,” Cooper said.

The subcommittee also recommended a new town commission “to address issues of systemic oppression in all its forms.”

Committee member Rachel Marco-Havens questioned why the outlook for training was so far ahead to 2024, to which Cooper answered it is a matter of finances and scheduling.

“I believe it’s about $1800 per officer, so doing it over a period of time helps with the financial burden and the staffing reconfigurations that need to happen when someone’s in a 40-hour training. This is a full week of training,” Cooper said.

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Youth and cultural shift

“We’d like to see all members of this committee read and respond to the Ulster County Justice Reform Policy,” said Maria Scarangella, who presented recommendations for dealing with a cultural shift.

“In an effort to extend beyond the federally mandated Use of Force Policy which was recently enacted by WPD, we recommend WPD review and model a new Use of Force Policy based on Campaign Zero’s policy solutions,” she said.

Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) encourages a focus on solutions with the strongest evidence of reducing police violence.

The subcommittee also recommends the formation of a working body to take on issues with an anti-oppression framework.

Scarangella requested a week extension to return with ideas addressing youth issues.

Training

Earls presented the recommendations from the training subcommittee.

All officers, regardless of full- or part-time status, will receive de-escalation training. The subcommittee found not all officers were receiving this training, Earls said.

The police department should use an outside agency to implement training for all officers in cultural responsiveness and related topics “that can build trust and legitimacy in diverse communities.”

The Woodstock Human Rights Commission should review cultural responsiveness training content, provide feedback and participate in training.

Finding on accessibility will be presented at a later date and included in the final report. 

Committee members will work on introductions to the findings and the group will seek public input before presenting the final report to the town board at its March 9 meeting. Look for a link to be posted soon on the town website, woodstockny.org, to the draft report and an opportunity to comment.

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