Coming off of ratifying a report about what can be done to improve the relationship between police officers and community members, New Paltz Town Council members began tackling the recommendations therein during the Police Commission meeting on May 20. The report itself was required by the governor, who tied its completion by local government leaders around the state to future funding, but actually implementing it was not part of that threat.
Town Council members are currently serving also on the Police Commission, a legacy of a decision made during the Zimet administration to dissolve the independent body, but as is the practice in this area, an attorney has been tasked with writing a law to again separate the two functions of government. The next version of the Police Commission won’t be entirely independent from political pressure, however, because elected officials are the people who are ultimately accountable to the public. Work on other reforms will be conducted by those elected officials until a new round of appointments can be made to seat a more independent police commission.
First up to be addressed in terms of urgency is to collect data about the race and gender of people who are involved in police encounters. Without those data, it’s impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions about bias, conscious or not. Police Chief Robert Lucchesi believes that the best way to do this is by having it included in the information on state-issued identification cards, but absent that the chief has directed officers to record observations about race and gender in their reports. “We are not asking about race, ethnicity or gender during an interview,” Lucchesi said, and thus the data collected are not going to be entirely accurate. The data will, however, be including in the annual reports going forward.
Police encounter data will become more accessible to the public, too. Lucchesi said that this is a desire throughout the county, which could yield results in the coming months.
On the other priority issue — choke-holds — the chief was less enthused with the recommendation in the report, which called for striking reference to choke-holds from local policy because these are now illegal under state law, and also to ban carotid restraints. Lucchesi believes that the language in the current policy ensures that officers understand precisely what is forbidden, and what is not. Moreover, in keeping with state law these techniques remain acceptable in any situation where deadly force is warranted. The chief believes that since it’s required that use of these techniques must be reported under state law, that removing reference to them from the policy would cause more problems than it might resolve. “I think the policy is strong,” Lucchesi said, and that removing those terms would undercut that strength.