Whatever Governor Cuomo intended with the executive order last year that called for a review of local police departments, it’s clear that the idea of reconsidering how to ensure safety and provide emergency services has fired imaginations in New Paltz. The town’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative members hosted a discussion on their draft report to accomplish that very thing on the Ides of March. This is the report that, once finalized after hearing those comments on March 15, will need to be ratified by the town council in order to forestall a threat to cut off all remaining state aid. However, two other reports on the same subject matter have also been released, one by a group of residents who felt their voices weren’t being heard, and another by the chair of the official reform group itself, Randall Leverette.
Draft report calls for sweeping changes
The draft report endorsed by the steering committee of this collaborative calls for some specific changes and others that are more sweeping. They include:
• Banning more types of choking restraints than are even illegal in state law.
• Transitioning from a model of enforcing laws to upholding community safety.
• Implementing hiring criteria that include commitments to the community and to anti-racism, along with encouraging officers who don’t fit those standards to retire early.
• Require anti-racist training for all elected town, village and school board members, along with all school district employees and police officers, and to then agree on a “shared glossary of terminology around systemic racism.”
• Doing a better job of “decrying misuse of force incidents.”
• Requiring official and individual rejection of “blue lives matter,” because wearing a uniform is a choice while one’s skin color is not.
• Training in new interrogation techniques and the use of cameras.
• Reconsidering how productivity is measured and discipline is applied, among others.
Independent report filed by Leverette
Leverette submitted an independent report — characterized as “more granular and specific” to the town’s police department — directly to the town council, but not until after this town-hall style meeting was held on the content of the official report. This report includes:
• Ideas for building trust, such as printing a summary of a citizen’s rights and how to file a complaint on the back of business cards.
• Making the number of complaints filed as public as the number of compliments.
• Posting all department policies on the town website.
• Hiring officers who earned college degrees with majors other than criminal justice.
• Requiring at least the chief and lieutenant to live in the town.
• Training on how to deal with children and with people who have autism, as misunderstandings of that type have resulted in tragedy elsewhere.
Some of Leverette’s recommendations overlapped more strongly with those in the official report, such as reinstating the independence of the police commission and collecting more demographic data during encounters. Leverette also would like to see separate insurance for police encounters that isn’t part of the main town policy, reasoning that especially confrontational officers would be edged out by high premiums.
Report from the New Paltz Coalition for Safety and Well-being
The report prepared by members of the New Paltz Coalition for Safety and Well-being differs from both in some ways:
• Coalition members are seeking a civilian review board with much broader powers than the police commission.
• A separate civilian advisory board that would “serve as a community liaison.”
• Ceasing the practice of agreeing to contract terms that limit accountability.
• Publishing information such as policies, contracts, budgets and police activity.
• A long list of specific policy adjustments. They wish to “divest” from police, to allow more funds to go to areas such as mental health.
Conversation built around “guided questions”
This session was markedly different than past public meetings of this group. Those were “listening sessions,” meaning that collaborative members were gathering information and providing no feedback on what was said as they planned out the report that they would write. This time, they not only listened to feedback on the draft report, but responded to explain their thinking and what they thought about the input they were receiving. The conversation was built around “guided questions”: where could they have gone further into discussion issues laid out in Executive Order 203, areas of the executive order that appear to have been overlooked, and the ideas and insights that participants wished to praise in some way. The change in format was praised by several people during the evening, as the one-sided method was frequently decried as being a poor substitute for dialogue throughout the process. As the executive order was narrowly tailored, collaborative member Jennifer Berry asked that comments that speak to broader issues be submitted in writing as part of what’s being framed as an ongoing conversation about racial and other social issues.
Collaborative member Albert Cook began by noting that the precursors of police in the United States were groups hunting escaped slaves, and that police have frequently been called upon to enforce laws that reinforce a racial hierarchy. However, Cook noted, police issues are just the “low-hanging fruit” in efforts to address systemic racism, because police officers “are the foot soldiers” who are tasked with enforcing societal values. “They are the tip of the sword only,” but that’s all this particular group was asked to address.
Tanya Marquette is a member of the New Paltz Coalition for Community Safety and Well-Being. While noting that it was clear much work went into the official document, Marquette felt it to be “disappointing” because in Marquette’s view it missed the entire point, which was re-imagining and reinventing public safety. The way to address racism, Marquette said, is to change the power structure. Such a model would address violence more broadly; Marquette included suicide and drug abuse under the umbrella of that word, for example.
“I know you don’t like the word ‘defund,” said Tom Jeliffe, another coalition member, “but it’s been a rallying cry.” In the draft report, collaborative members wrote, “Defunding is considered a way to avoid over-policing. What is not so obvious is that it also leads to departments that are spread too thin, with officers working dangerous amounts of overtime. Over-tired officers are more likely to make unsafe/unwise choices.” Relying on state troopers to pick up the slack is problematic, as the state police were conspicuously not included in the governor’s order to review policing. Jeliffe appeared to think that the term was discarded too quickly, as it captures the idea that money should be used to pay for people better trained to handle some of the issues that can be exacerbated by sending in armed officers instead. Specifically, the coalition is calling for a 25% cut in the town’s police budget over time; the police budget has consistently been increased since the 1990s whether crime rates were rising or falling, and they reason that spending in other areas might have a better impact. If more crime results in more police, they believe, then less crime should mean a smaller police department. The gradual cuts would also allow for state and local laws to be changed; as it stands now, for example, a town mental-health program would likely result in residents missing out on county- and state-level services because of how the law is written. Jeliffe said that the specific county and state laws that would impede a defunding effort should be called out in the report, to allow for focused lobbying efforts.
Berry said that relying more on state police is a non-starter for many people of color, saying, “I would not stay here.”
New Paltz reviews the model followed in Camden, New Jersey
Members of the collaborative looked closely at the efforts undertaking in Camden, New Jersey, where all members of the police force were fired and some given the opportunity to reapply for those jobs. Cook said that this would not be a good model in New Paltz, because it involved abolishing the police union and it resulted in a high rate of turnover among officers. Community relations is supported by longer-term relationships, and the idea of destroying a union seems to be antithetical to the political values in New Paltz. However, Marquette noted that police unions were pushed out of the AFL-CIO.
Drawing on the Camden experiment, the report includes a recommendation for “check-ins” with members of marginalized populations. Margaret Veve questioned the wisdom of this, saying that desensitizing people to the presence of police is “contrary to our community values.”
Coalition member Gowri Parameswaran headed up a short-lived citizen advisory board that was created to address concerns that the police commission was wrested from citizen control during the administration of Susan Zimet. After that advisory board issued a report in the case of Paul Echols, an Ellenville native whom a now-retired officer admitted to striking while handcuffed, the town attorney advised that the advisory board had been created illegally, and it was disbanded. The police commission has been populated by town council members for a number of years, and one of the recommendations in the official report is to return to appointing citizens to a “fully empowered” police commission, according to Berry.
Parameswaran’s primary concern about the report, however, is that it relies heavily on additional training for police and other public officials. “Studies show it doesn’t reduce police violence,” Parameswaran said, and at worst it results in backlash against the idea of anti-racism. Training in mental health procedures for officers is problematic, because “not everyone has the temperament,” and people in crisis do not necessarily want to deal with armed individuals at all. Moreover, Parameswaran said that unspecified studies indicate that some officers become more aggressive when forced to use body cameras. “We need to associate actions with consequences.”
Berry pointed to the idea of recruiting “specialist officers,” who would be individuals who already have training in another discipline such as social work, and only then become police officers, and suggested that this might address concerns about training, along with the “community assessment” to help determine the extent of the issues locally. Cook expressed a belief that regularly undergoing the “undoing racism” training — which Cook described as “confrontational” — throughout the community would help address the concern that training does not work, as would shifting from a system of unofficial ticket quotas to a metric of community engagement. Collaborative member Esi Lewis focused on the hiring recommendations, reasoning that hiring differently will yield different results.
Others focused on the protections police have from court decisions and their negotiated contract, a document which was not mentioned at all in this report. For example, Marquette argued that the standards of qualified immunity can be modified with a combination of new local laws and thoughtful contract negotiations.
Tricia Bowen was curious about the call for more data about race to be compiled for police encounters, and asked to what extent these data would be public. Cook acknowledged that even after stripping names and identifying details, the relatively small number of people in New Paltz means that these would never be entirely anonymous data. Bowen seemed more interested in the data about the pretexts for pulling over individuals, rather than the identities of those individuals.
Berry specifically rejected the idea that racism should be suppressed, because “when bigotry is underground, it is not gone; it is sneakier.” Techniques that “call out” racism do not accomplish as much as “calling in” people who harbor racist beliefs, Berry believes.
Whether it’s appropriate to include issues that are subject to county, state or federal law is significant difference of opinion about the content of this report. Collaborative members tailored their report much more narrowly than members of this citizens’ coalition would have liked, reasoning that it’s outside the scope of the executive order to look for more from this document. They stressed that the work and the conversation should continue, and that these are issues which will need to be addressed in some form, just not in this form. On the other hand, collaborative chair Leverette thought that even the report released cast too wide a net, and prepared an independent one for members of the town council to consider.
What steps to take next
Shifting to a more conversational format was welcomed by those who showed up, but it’s not something that’s going to be repeated, at least by this particular group. That’s because police reform and reinvention collaboratives like this one only exist to comply with Executive Order 203 and the deadline for completing that work is April 1. In their final days of fulfilling this charge, collaborative members must decide if and how to modify their report based on this feedback, and then turn that work product over to the town council to act by April Fool’s Day. Berry said that the coalition’s report would be considered during that phase; presumably Leverette’s will as well, but it had not yet been made public at that point. It’s not the task of this group to implement any of these ideas, just to suggest them. Eyes will now be on the elected town council members as they decide what steps to take next.