During the months-long process of reviewing policing in New Paltz to comply with an executive order, one oft-repeated refrain was that while creating this report was all that was required, the work to make the recommended changes would continue over the long haul. Town Council members have now committed to a plan to keep this work in the public eye. One or two of the recommendations in the report will be discussed at each Police Commission meeting for the foreseeable future, with that body taking the lead in turning a binder into action. As suggested by town council member David Brownstein, the recommendations will be prioritized by urgency and published in advance on the agenda, to allow members of the public to prepare relevant comments.
The “first and highest priority,” according to Superintendent Neil Bettez, is making the Police Commission as independent as it once was. New Paltz had a five-member commission of appointees who helped prepare the departmental budget, and were also tasked with work such as interviewing candidates for police chief and dealing with disciplinary issues. That group was dissolved during the Zimet administration, and since then town council members have taken on all those responsibilities. A new law will have to be written, and some reform advocates want a commission that can’t be dissolved by elected officials and ideally one with members selected by residents who are members of specific marginalized groups. However, the state law laying out Police Commissions and how they are created and run is clear that members are appointed by elected officials, because that’s how accountability is established in a democracy. It’s also not immediately clear how many members might be named for such a commission; the town’s attorney will be asked to sort that out.
Bettez said that crafting and passing a new law might take some time, but that doesn’t mean that applications can’t be reviewed. Any town resident interested in serving on the civilian Police Commission is asked to send a letter of interest describing relevant experience to email@example.com.
At the May 20 Police Commission meeting, it will still be the elected town council members at the table. They will be looking at two recommendations: one to start collecting data about race, ethnicity and language during police encounters; the other would explicitly ban two types of choke-holds, one of which is already forbidden under New York law.
Jennifer Berry is a member of the steering committee for the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative created to respond to the governor’s executive order on local policing, in part because of past experience working on police-community issues in the Bronx. Berry made it clear that four of the five steering committee members are willing to continue working to help implement the suggestions in the report. For Berry, that will include reviewing applications for the next iteration of the Police Commission.
The problem that some residents see as central to the entire discussion is that there are too many officers at all. Tom Jeliffe, one person who holds this position, shared that according to FBI data, crime has fallen off by 65% over the past ten years, but the number of officers has stayed the same.
Edgar Rodriguez is one of those who continue to express frustration about how the process unfolded, saying that it did not take into account the requests made by black people in the community. What’s more, the additional training recommended in the report — the effectiveness of which has been questioned regularly at these public meetings — would effectively increase the police budget even as the crime rate continues to fall. Members of the “New Paltz Coalition for Safety and Well-being” are calling for a 25% cut to police spending, through attrition.
Berry spoke to frequent criticisms of the steering committee that oversaw creating the report that was ultimately accepted on April 1. “We heard repeatedly that we were dismissive,” Berry said, but they did listen. However, members “did not necessarily come to the precise same conclusions” that were reached by other town residents. For example, one request repeatedly made is a system that would keep armed police away from incidents when only a mental health professional is needed, because a mental health crisis is often part of the backdrop of fatal police encounters. “We know that mental health professionals do not want to go on calls without police, at least in the background.” Some members of the public could be seen shaking their heads at this, but Berry stood by that assertion. Instead, a proposal was crafted to recruit into the police people who already were trained mental health professionals, the rationale being that they “would go to all their other skills first.”
An even smaller number of critical environmental areas now being considered
After meeting resistance from New Paltz Planning Board members who disagree on how much more money and time would be spent on reviewing affected applications, a scaled-back proposal for naming some Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs) was presented to the town council at its May 6 meeting. CEAs do not actually add any protection to affected land, according Ingrid Haeckel, the Environmental Conservation Board (EnCB) member who has been shepherding this idea through. Rather, if a large subdivision is proposed in a CEA, it simply results in a box being checked that reminds Planning Board members to consult existing town documents like the Open Space Plan and Natural Resources Inventory as they do their work. This is what Planning Board members should be doing for applications regardless, and the CEA flag should serve as a reminder that it’s definitely worth a look when it’s waved.
However, Planning Board attorney Rick Golden convinced most members of that board that rolling CEAs out at the scale proposed — six of them covering more than half of the town land not inside of the village line — would mean that projects take longer to review and cost applicants more in terms of consultant fees. That resistance by the volunteers who would be tasked with enforcement has led to the proposal being reduced to four, and now two, areas to be designated. The two survivals are the Ridge, which is already protected and is unlikely to have many projects anyway, and the Plutarch woods and wetlands on the eastern side of town, which has similar ecological value, but no protection whatsoever. Both are large areas of habitat for non-humans, for which the greatest risk is slow fragmentation by means of multiple smaller development projects that are not reviewing while keeping in mind the context of the larger area.
Haeckel said that these large areas without human occupation help make New Paltz resistant to climate change by, for example, protecting against flooding. Checking the CEA box would only matter for projects of ten acres or more, or for subdivisions. EnCB members would be willing to conduct pre-application to discuss natural features and strategies for designing projects to avoid habitat fragmentation, which theoretically would allow developers to avoid having to make several new versions of plans to address those necessary questions because they are considered in the original design.
A hearing was set to begin on May 20, and town council member David Brownstein suggested mailing all affected property owners. However, Dan Torres discouraged that as it may set an unintended precedent, setting up for a potential lawsuit in the future if the same extra measures were not put in place when considering some other law.