Knocking on suspects’ doors
Warrants executed by New Paltz police officers are almost never done without knocking, according to police chief Robert Lucchesi, and that’s been the policy since 2019. Called “dynamic entry search warrants” in law enforcement lingo, they are not used by town officers unless there is an “imminent threat to human life.” The value of this type of warrant was questioned nationally in light of the death of Breonna Taylor in March, 2020, but the decision to scale them back in New Paltz was made the prior year, because it didn’t jibe with the philosophy that drug users should be treated rather than incarcerated. While the practice was changed two years ago, the policy is now being updated to reflect that practice, limiting it to issues of “imminent threat to human life.”
Traffic stops regarding cannabis more complicated
It’s still illegal to toke up behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, and that blue smoke pouring out of the car windows still counts as probable cause for an officer to conduct field sobriety tests. However, now that it’s legal for adults to use cannabis, finding a roach isn’t enough to ticket someone. According to New Paltz Police Chief Robert Lucchesi, drivers in that situation should still expect to have some of those field sobriety tests conducted, as they measure factors like reaction speed and physical coordination that impact the ability to safely operate a vehicle. If those are failed, though, the driver might have to spend a whole lot more time in the officer’s company. A breath test will still identify alcohol in the system, but delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol — the chemical THC that produces the high — lingers in the blood for weeks after the effects fade. The process when someone doesn’t appear sober but hasn’t been drinking is to call in a drug recognition expert, an officer trained to administer a different battery of tests to determine if an individual is under the influence of cannabis. Unfortunately, for anyone detained under those circumstances, there are thus far only two of these experts in the county, meaning it could be a long wait. If those test results also indicate driving while blazed, the suspect is taken to a hospital for a blood test to back up that assertion.
Given that it’s now okay to spark that doobie at one’s destination, waiting appears to be the better bet.
Use of force by police reviewed
New Paltz police commissioners looked at how New Paltz officers are permitted to use force as part of their duties and also looked at what’s conveyed to the public about those activities. Police officers carry deadly weapons, and it’s the implicit threat represented by even a holstered firearm that ensures compliance by citizens — even when officers exceed their authority, as was the case in several high-profile incidents documented around the country in recent years. None of those abuses of authority in the headlines took place in New Paltz, and the policy review now underway is intended to ensure that nothing like that ever occurs in the town, even if future officers lack the degree of discipline and professionalism exhibited by current members of the force.
Resident Tom Jelliffe expressed concern during public comment that current policy doesn’t include what chief Robert Lucchesi calls a “duty to intervene” if another officer is going too far, and the chief was quick to correct Jelliffe’s understanding. Town officers are expected to take action in those cases, the chief explained.
Commissioners also spoke with the chief about a recommendation that there be a departmental practice of publicly decrying cases of unacceptable force in the news, but this was roundly rejected. While some public statements are made, the challenge is that information about these incidents is never complete while investigations are ongoing. “Until we know all the facts, I’m less comfortable weighing in,” said town supervisor Neil Bettez, who serves as a police commissioner by virtue of being town supervisor. On the other hand, those high-profile events are regularly deconstructed as part of training for town officers.
Racism training will require monetary, political capital
New Paltz police commissioners are reviewing several recommendations from the Reform and Reinvention Collaborative and at their June 17 meeting they tackled a big one: putting all local governmental employees and officials through the “Undoing Racism” training program. When it comes to town staff members, paying for that wouldn’t be cheap: Chief Robert Lucchesi estimates $10-20,000 to sign up all police officers and dispatchers and that doesn’t include pay. The chief will include that ask in the police portion of the next town budget, and it appears that the supervisor will direct most other department heads to do the same. However, supervisor Neil Bettez pointed out that the justice department is largely independent, and that efforts even to have a representative attend department head meetings have been unsuccessful.
The recommendation was not aimed just at town employees, though; village and school district staffers were also included. Over these, town officials have no more control than they do town justices. There was brief discussion about figuring out if collaboration with village officials could reduce the cost or increase participation, but no one suggested expending any political capital reaching out to school board members. As it happens, school board trustees have been exploring more widespread anti-racism training and even passed a sweeping policy last week on the topic, but the cost of this particular training is a challenge in the school district, as well.
Town council meetings in person to resume
As of July 1, New Paltz Town Council members will meet again in person. The meetings will take place at the Community Center, because the wireless signal there is strong enough to support new technology that will allow hybrid participation. Anyone unable to attend in person will have the option to observe online live, and even participate during public comment, as has been the case throughout this pandemic.