Members of New Paltz’s Town Council interviewed four candidates for the five-member Police Commission during their February 17 meeting. This is the latest step in a years-long process to restore a level of independence to the body that oversees the departmental budget and reviews disciplinary matters. Under the prior supervisor, Susan Zimet, Town Council members dissolved the volunteer commission and took on those duties themselves, claiming that a volunteer commission unduly complicated the budget process as justification for a move that has also been described as a political move prompted by the fact that the commission’s chair at the time, Randall Leverette, had recently challenged Zimet for the supervisor’s job. The lift to restore the old system was made lighter by the mandated increased scrutiny on police practices and race relations, the result of an executive order directed at leaders of local police forces to form “reinvention commissions.” In New Paltz, restoring some semblance of independence was a specific recommendation in the report.
A Police Commission cannot be entirely immune to politics, because in New York it’s understood that elected officials bear ultimate responsibility in a democracy. The members will be appointed through Town Council votes, and current Town Council members have made efforts to find candidates from groups that are seen as being more likely to interact with police, such as people of color. None of the candidates volunteered information about their racial or ethnic background, gender identity or membership in any marginalized group, but council members did speak about inviting individuals to apply to supplement those who submitted letters of interest in response to the general call for applicants. Those concentrated efforts have not yet yielded even enough bodies to fill all five seats, much less fill a larger pool of candidates.
Council members interviewed Johnny Coxum, a retired university police officer who spoke about being able to bring the perspectives of both a community members and a law enforcement officer to the table. Karrie Rahaman-Bunce, a school administrator in Newburgh, would seek to draw lessons from the police-community healing efforts in that community to prevent such large schisms from developing in New Paltz. David Brownstein, recently a Town Council member, seeks to bring the experience of serving on that version of the commission to this new body and ground it in that history. Attorney Cindy Sanchez would bring lessons learned finding solutions while practicing matrimonial law to find ways to help all community members — including department members — feel like police officers are members of this community, with shared values and goals.
There is a clear interest in continuing to seek more candidates for this position, which after a training period will largely involve preparing for and attending one evening meeting a month, but rubbing against that is an urgent desire to cleave police oversight from political influence as soon as possible. No appointments have been made yet, and Town residents are encouraged to email letters of interest to email@example.com.
Let’s meet soon in the new justice center
The first opportunity for members of the public to attend Town Council meetings in the meeting room of the new justice center will not come before the ides of March, but it may be soon after. The dispensation to hold meetings virtually now lasts through March 16, and Supervisor Neil Bettez would like to prepare for the likelihood that it will be extended no further. At that first meeting in March, council members will confirm their intent to have hybrid meetings thereafter, with members of the public welcome in the new space.
In the meantime, a new screen will be ordered to allow for the hybrid option to continue. Members of the public unwilling or unable to attend in person will continue to be able to watch the meetings live, and participate in public comment if they choose. Council members also agreed to reopen Town Hall to members of the public, but to leave in place the requirement for face coverings. The coronavirus case numbers will be monitored closely ahead of the next meeting.