One of the recommendations that came from the Town of New Paltz’s Police Reinvention Commission was to set standards for “ideal officers,” and see to it that all current and future officers fit the bill. That recommendation was raised during the Police Commission meeting on October 21. The chief appeared to be generally supportive, insofar as the concern raised was about how to retain those officers, not how to obtain them.
The criteria for ideal officers is expected to be changed over time, but for now they are focused on individuals who can navigate encounters with civilians with a minimum of violence, and who are also demonstrably anti-racist in their attitudes. Chief Robert Lucchesi said that the retention of any such “ideal” officers is related to the retention of officers generally. Lucchesi has, at other meetings, indicated that newer officers will sometimes get a job somewhere with a higher starting pay, leaving a hole in the roster that can be difficult to fill.
According to the chief, the process of hiring an officer has some complexity. The only candidates interviewed are the three highest scorers on the civil service list. Those candidates must complete an extensive personal history statement, which is verified through a background investigation. They are subjected to a psychological evaluation and a polygraph test. Many candidates who are hired must complete the second set of required police academy courses, paid for from the police budget. That’s time and money that won’t be recovered if a new officer finds a more lucrative position somewhere nearby, where the salary is more or the hours greater.
Interview questions to help evaluate candidates against the “ideal officer” standard have already been incorporated into the hiring process, Lucchesi said. What didn’t come up in the discussion is how, or if, these criteria can be applied to current officers. That’s part and parcel of the recommendation.
The fact that polygraph tests are used in the hiring process may be seen as surprising to anyone who has reviewed the evidence about the effectiveness of this technique. There is no scientific evidence that they are reliable, and for that reason they are rarely used in court proceedings. The use of the tests is most common in the United States, with the roughly $700 test being administered most often to emergency services workers, including police officers. The Wikipedia entry on polygraphs includes sources about how to defeat the machine. Reached over the weekend, Supervisor Neil Bettez could not immediately confirm the source of the recommendation that they be used, but they are also used in the hiring of state police officers. “They are meaningless in my opinion,” Bettez said, and the fact that they are paid for with tax dollars is a source of frustration. Bettez called polygraph tests a “waste of time and money, in my opinion.”
A policy update for background investigations has been adopted. Recent draft policies under consideration for the police department are now available for review on the Town website.
Measuring officer interactions
One of the police reform recommendations discussed at the Police Commission meeting is about weaving data about civilian interactions into officer evaluations. According to Chief Lucchesi, annual evaluations already include a number of metrics; officers are evaluated on how well they complete reports, solve problems, conduct investigations and follow through. Lucchesi’s understanding of what’s being asked is that documentation be created about interactions with the public. The chief’s interpretation is to encourage more foot patrols in the downtown area, and to document what the officers do while outside of their vehicles in this manner. “Foot patrols matter to me,” said the chief.
What’s not included in officer evaluations are numbers of arrests made and citations written, Lucchesi said. Non-enforcement time and how it’s spent, including walking the streets and engaging in “community-oriented policing calls” such as attending meetings, are important to the chief.
Resident Tom Jelliffee, who has been watching the reform process closely, observed during public comment that the intent of the Reform Commission may have been less about who is spoken to as it should be about the racial makeup of the citizens encountered, and what happened during those encounters. Jelliffe’s reasoning is that the executive order used to kick off the reform process in departments around New York — excluding the state police — was motivated by a desire to understand the relationship between policing and race.