Town council members in New Paltz have been doing double duty as police commissioners since it was decided during the last Zimet administration that it would be more efficient to run that way. Dan Torres, the only current council member who was serving at that time, recalls that the decision was made late at night, at the end of a meeting and resulted in the five volunteers then serving being unceremoniously dismissed. Restoring that independent commission to review budgets, hiring and discipline has been a focus of Neil Bettez since taking over the supervisor’s office from Susan Zimet, but the statewide push for police reform has given a push to that effort. Now, after reviewing how things are done in a number of other municipalities, as well as the limits of what’s possible under state law, Bettez is recommending restoring the former system as a quick way to get closer to what community members want to see. That plan was discussed during the town council meeting on July 15.
The supervisor believes the old town system to be better than other examples that have been reviewed. Such a commission would not be as independent as some advocates desire, because under state law the elected officials have ultimate responsibility for what the police do, and thus must appoint those commissioners. However, Torres suggested adding an additional protection for commissioners to avoid what happened in 2015: require a public hearing before removing a commissioner prior to the end of a term, which is already in place for Planning Board members.
Another restriction that would remain in place is that in cases of discipline, any internal investigation would be conducted by the lieutenant. The results of the investigation are then shared with commissioners. That’s a clause in the police contract, which is up for negotiation; Bettez has said in the past that “everything is on the table” during these contract talks. At this meeting, the supervisor explained that the rationale behind the current system is that when an officer does the investigating, it can pierce the perception of a “blue wall of silence;” Chief Robert Lucchesi noted that officers are obligated to answer all questions posed during internal investigations, or faces additional charges of insubordination. In the case of a shooting, there is also a criminal investigation, and yet another conducted from the state attorney general’s office.