“Change is often difficult; change is often necessary.” That in a nutshell is the conclusion drawn by the Rosendale Community Police Reform Committee (RCPRC) in the final version of its Reform & Reinvention Report, which was released last week and is now available for download on the town website at www.townofrosendale.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/FINAL-DRAFT-RCPRC-Report.pdf. Like all other municipalities in New York State, Rosendale was required to adopt a policing reform plan by April 1, 2021, in response to Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 2031, issued in the wake of a series of killings of Black Americans by police officers in 2020.
The primary elements reviewed and considered by the RCPRC included use-of-force practices and strategies to ensure appropriate tactics are used; data collection, sharing and use that promotes transparency and trust; community oversight of policing practices, policies and leadership; and training requirements, particularly those related to racial and gender bias. Unlike many large urban police forces, the committee concluded, Rosendale doesn’t have an enormous problem with use of force against civilians of any race, and whatever bias may exist among department personnel seems to be implicit or unconscious rather than overt. But the committee did identify some problems with transparency and accountability that may contribute to negative public perception and lack of trust. A list of recommendations for measures to improve the Rosendale Police Department’s relationship with the community was published as part of the report.
The committee consisted of Rosendale residents Ted Dixon, Josh Baron, Marc Cassidy, Terry Johnson, Jessieca McNabb, Richard Wright, police chief Scott Schaffrick and Town Board members Matt Igoe and Carrie Wykoff, as well as Ulster County chief investigator/assistant district attorney William J. Weishaupt. They divided up into 13 subcommittees to gather and interpret data pertinent to the following topics: determining the role of the police; staffing, budgeting and equipping the police department; procedural justice and community policing; law enforcement strategies to reduce racial disparities and build trust; community engagement; leadership and culture; tracking and reviewing use of force and identifying misconduct; internal accountability for misconduct; citizen oversight and external accountability; data, technology and transparency; recruiting a diverse workforce; training and continuing education; and supporting officer wellness and well-being.
The committee’s research methodology included three public listening sessions (conducted remotely), individual interviews with residents who didn’t wish to identify themselves publicly and a 15-question community survey. The latter drew responses from 303 Rosendale residents, representing approximately five percent of the Town’s total population of 6,075, of whom about three percent are currently estimated by the US Census Bureau to be Black/African American.
Close to 70 percent of survey respondents gave the Rosendale Police Department the highest possible rating on questions regarding fairness and willingness to communicate with the community. On the questions relating to “procedural justice” and whether the town’s law enforcement personnel could be trusted, however, 9.7 percent responded negatively, selecting a one or a two on the rating scale of five.
“While the overall response to the survey was positive and those minorities who responded did not appear to have significant concerns, it is important that more work be done to understand better why some in our community feel negatively toward the RPD,” the report stated. “To develop a strong community partnership, the Rosendale Police Department must develop positive relationships with the community, including Rosendale residents who believe their concerns are not being considered.”
Statistics kept by the department itself note that only two formal complaints were submitted in the last nine years, and Chief Schaffrick told the committee that he receives approximately two to four informal complaints per year – primarily involving traffic infractions. Demographic data are not recorded for traffic stops, nor for interactions with the public classified as “cases” and “incidents.” A table of arrest data, where the arrested individual’s ethnicity is reported, is included in the report. “From 2017 to 2020, we have found that among those for whom the race is known, 18.7 percent of arrests were of Blacks/African Americans, about five times the Blacks/African Americans population in Rosendale,” the report noted, although most of the Black individuals arrested were not town residents. “In addition, the trend over this period appears to show that the percentage of Black people being arrested has increased, from a low of 15.7 percent to a high of 23 percent.” This trend seems to conflict with the fact that RPD officers have been receiving training in implicit bias since 2017.
Regarding the types of reforms currently popularized under the misleading rubric of “defunding the police,” the report noted, “Some did question whether the RPD should be the first, and sometimes only, responder to drug overdoses, mental illness-related events and other social and medical emergencies.” However, there are structural obstacles to an alternative approach, including the fact that “The Town of Rosendale’s annual budget does not have paid social services personnel” and “the New York State mandate to consolidate services to the extent possible at the county level.”
Details of the two incidents requiring use of force by the RPD in 2020 seem to reflect some progress in the application of de-escalation techniques, including one case in which “a second subject arrived at the scene with a pistol and pointed it at the two Rosendale Police officers. The officers were able to push the weapon away and convince the subject to put the gun down, deescalating the incident without discharge and resulting in a safe, voluntary surrender.”
The RCPRC’s most vociferous complaint with the RPD and town officials was the difficulty it encountered in obtaining police incident data with identifying details deleted to protect the privacy of the persons involved, requiring the committee to resort to FOIL requests. As a result, the creation of a publicly accessible “data dashboard” on the town website, including “annual de-identified use-of-force analyses,” was one of the recommendations to which RCPRC assigned high priority.
Other top recommendations include an annual community policing survey; more transparency in the RPD’s complaint/commendation protocol; quarterly public updates from the Police Commission; a “written policy governing the reporting of misconduct by officers beyond the use of force”; reporting of complaints involving civil rights violations to the town supervisor, Town Board, Police Commission and Ulster County district attorney; adding liaisons to minority communities to the Police Commission; and additional bias-related training and mental health crisis training for RPD officers. Another high-priority recommendation, the use of body-worn cameras on all police personnel, is already being addressed, as the Town Board voted at its March 10 meeting to allocate matching funds to obtain a state grant awarded for that purpose.
A virtual public hearing on the final report by the RCPRC has been scheduled for a special meeting on Wednesday, March 24 that begins at 6 p.m., to follow the public hearing on the municipal water tank project. The committee has requested that the Town Board “research all of the RCPRC recommendations, both priority and others in the report, and produce an action plan on how each will be addressed and release the plan to the public within four months from when the final report is ratified.”