New Paltz Town Council members adopted the report from the New Paltz Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative (NPPRRC) entitled “Re-Imagining Police in New Paltz” at their April 1 meeting, ensuring that the threat of state funding being cut off to the town would not come to pass. The report was written in response to an executive order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo last June, requiring that, “Each local government entity which has a police agency . . . must perform a comprehensive review of current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures and practices, and 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.” To make sure these reports were written, the state budget director “shall be authorized to condition receipt of future appropriated state or federal funds upon filing of such certification for which such local government would otherwise be eligible,” potentially cutting off much of the funding for local governments.
Conspicuously absent from the executive order was any review of state-level police agencies, or any mechanism to ensure that these plans aren’t just left on a shelf to collect dust once they are filed. The former is especially relevant in New Paltz, where in addition to state troopers regularly writing tickets in town, university police also pull drivers over off campus with some regularity. That latter concern — that nothing will be change when it comes to the relationship between the police and the policed — will not come to pass, if town council members follow through in the way they signaled they would to implement some of the ideas in the report. Some of the small number of residents following this process think that the report falls short of meaningful change, even if it’s implemented fully.
The first step toward change
A number of ad-hoc community groups were engaged in this process and many of the public comments about it have expressed frustration. While committee members and activists appear to agree that racism is a systemic problem in the country that is especially dangerous when expressed through armed police, and that police have become the default solution for complex social problems that really can’t be solved with handcuffs, they differ on whether this report pays lip service to the issues or is the first step toward change. Throughout the months of meetings and study, the fact that committee members only listened rather than engaging in dialogue was frequently criticized, as well.
Some of the recommendations are narrowly tailored to issues under town council control, such as shifting the police commission back to a semi-independent body, but others go well beyond what town leaders have under their direct control, such as having all local government employees — including village and school district staff — take an assessment to identify racial bias. At the same time, committee members acknowledge but do not recommend shifting budget funds from police into mental health services, specifically because mental health is a county issue rather than a town one. Town resident Tom Jeliffe wondered about dismissing the idea of expanded mental health services, noting that any law or regulation can be changed. Mental health was described as outside the purview of the executive order, but the assessment tool is seen by the same committee members as being an important way to shift from a model of tolerance to one of anti-racism. “No one signs up to be tolerated,” said co-facilitator Jennifer Berry, and government officials need an assessment tool because they typically “think they are better than they are.”
As is often the case with local initiatives, this process was limited by the fact that most people in town just didn’t get involved. “Most of the people we interacted with were white,” said Berry, and “what was brought to the table was mostly not about people of color.” While it’s possible that this means that the problems seen as disproportionately impacting people of color are in fact a problem for all people who interact with the police, there simply weren’t enough residents involved to make a statistical case for that argument. Committee member Diana Armstead noted that only around 40 people attended most of the public meetings on this topic, out of some 14,000 town residents.
Deficiencies in the report
Of the group of purportedly mostly white people, several continued to raise concerns about deficiencies in the report at this meeting. The committee explicitly laid out why they do not support de-funding the police — which activists are now re-framing as “divest-reinvest.” Tom Denton observed that the committee avoided any questions of spending entirely, preferring to leave that to the elected officials who oversee the town budget. That’s a shortfall in Denton’s view, because the data show that the number of officers has steadily increased over time, whether the crime rate is rising or falling. Moreover, police calls include a “high level of deployments for property surveillance,” checking to make sure vacant buildings haven’t been vandalized, burglarized, or occupied.
Local activists are clamoring for a 25% reduction in the town’s police spending through attrition, but committee members are looking to spend more. They recommend several new types of training, and also address officer pay: “Keeping the best talent requires offering competitive salary and benefits. There is already a pattern of officers being trained under the auspices and at the expense of the New Paltz Police Department only to leave for higher paying positions in other municipalities. This costs the community in multiple ways. We lose the talent in which we have invested, and we have to reinvest in replacing those officers.” For their part, activists believe if there are fewer officers, there are fewer “discretionary contacts,” which they believe would reduce the kinds of altercations as have been documented in the cases of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and others.
The report is silent on the police contract, despite the fact these contracts — locally and throughout the country — include provisions that dictate how officers are disciplined, and take precedence over law because the elected officials sign on. For example, in the current New Paltz police contract officers can’t be fired by the same elected officials who hired them in the first place. Instead, an arbitrator is named who makes that call.
The role of the police commission
One area on which there does appear to be agreement is that more data are needed to understand how police operate in the community. Information collected about encounters do not include any details about race or ethnicity. Not every police policy is easy to find online. There remains a legal tussle about what complaints and disciplinary records should be available to the public under current state law. Without evidence, there is no credible way to cast officers as heroes or villains, or to determine to what extent systemic racism impacts their work at all.
A more independent way to oversee the police is also a general goal with wide support, but there are different views on how to approach that. The town’s police commission has been just a shell since the last meeting of 2013, when as the final item of business the volunteers were dismissed and it was decided that town council members should assume those duties. Town council member Dan Torres explained that a civilian review board was created since as a way to include civilians in oversight, but a town attorney later advised that it was created illegally, and few applications were made to the replacement group. Activists remain suspicious about the dissolution of the civilian review board, as those volunteers had just completed a report finding excessive force was used against Paul Echols by then-officer Robert Knoth, who retired quietly during the long period of public scrutiny in that case. Committee members want to ensure that the commission can’t be rolled back into the town council again, but local activists don’t want members appointed by elected officials either, because of the ties to political control implied by that. Creating a group that is not elected in a largely democratic society could involve wrestling with philosophical questions around majority rule.
There was also some fracturing of the appointment committee, as well. According to Esi Lewis, who serves as spokesperson for the group, “Randall Laverette removed himself from the process toward the end of February and stopped communicating with the NPPRRC. He did not participate in writing the report and instead submitted his own report that we have referenced on page 48 of the NPPRRC final report.”
Lewis appears to be referring to this passage: “The NPPRRC received many documents and ideas from the community. Many of these make it into this report in one form or another. These are attached for historical/informational purposes — none of these were subject to any form of public scrutiny, input, or sanction. The array of visions within these reports illustrates the vast differences in philosophies present throughout our community. To clarify, while one of these community submissions is written as if it speaks for the NPPRRC, it does not. Nonetheless,the committee entertained and considered input regardless of the source.”
Asked for comment, Leverette instead suggested reaching out to the committee.
Berry introduced the discussion of this report by saying that in New Paltz, “we live in a town where this is a beginning, and not an end point.”
“There’s more to do,” said Armstead, and the people who have been involved in this process should “step up to the plate.”
It appears elected officials agree. Torres signaled a desire to talk about a 12-month implementation plan. Town Board member David Brownstein sees the report as something of a playbook, but with some plays yet to be written. Town Supervisor Neil Bettez called for restructuring the police commission as the next play. Whatever steps are taken in the coming months, they will likely be watched closely by members of the police force, the various groups of concerned citizens and perhaps even the broader population of voters in the town.