hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2020- January 2021


Seeking justice for all

New York’s push for police reform draws support, resistance locally


Police cars line the street opposite the Saratoga Springs Police Department headquarters at City Hall. photo by Joan K. Lentini


Police cars line the street opposite the Saratoga Springs Police Department headquarters at City Hall. photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


The summer’s protests over police brutality and racial injustice have lately begun to spur talk of reform among local government officials around eastern New York.

In most cases that’s thanks to a state mandate issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June, amid a national wave of demonstrations that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The governor’s executive order required local governments across New York – cities, counties and villages – to set up local stakeholder committees to review and recommend changes to the policies and practices of local police agencies in each community. These new local panels are supposed to focus special attention on policies governing use of force, procedural justice, evidence of bias, community outreach and conflict resolution, and other factors that affect fairness and community safety.

Nearly six months after the governor’s order, many communities around the region appear to have barely started the review process. Some have faced criticism after appointing stakeholder committees that were made up mainly of local law enforcement officials, rather than the broad community cross-section envisioned in the state’s order. And there’ve been reports that some of the new committees were meeting in secret or lacked meaningful provisions for public input into their reviews and recommendations.

But in at least a few of the region’s urban centers, advocates say the state’s order has created an unusual opportunity to rethink and perhaps reshape the practices and culture of policing in their communities.

“We are definitely able to put in our input, and we have a lot to put in,” said Mary Gooden, the president of the Glens Falls chapter of the NAACP, who serves on that city’s new 14-member stakeholder panel.

Among other issues, Gooden has pushed for diversity in hiring to be a higher priority for Glens Falls, which she said has just one person of color on a police force of 30 officers. The even larger Warren County Sheriff’s Office has none, she added.

Other advocates serving on local stakeholder panels are concerned with issues ranging from how police handle calls involving mental health crises to how local agencies interact with federal immigration authorities.

Whether this process leads to meaningful reforms will be tested over the next few months. Under the governor’s order, local governments are supposed to review and act upon their stakeholder panels’ recommendations – and document their efforts for the state – by April 1. Those that fail to comply risk losing state funds for law enforcement.


A recipe for reform?
The governor’s order directs local governments to engage with stakeholders from across the community, particularly with representatives of groups that have historically had strained relationships with police -- racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, those with mental health or substance abuse issues, and people with limited English or physical or mental handicaps that hamper communication with police.

Meetings of local police-reform committee must be open to the public, and the public must be able to comment. The committees are charged with drafting proposals for reforming department procedures and policies and submitting them to the local governing body.

In August, the governor’s office issued a 139-page handbook that spells out the topics local reform committees should consider as well as guidelines for creating a collaborative reform plan. The recommended schedule was to start organizing the committee and its work in August, gather community input in September and October, spend November and December drafting a plan, publish it for more community comment in January, revise as necessary, and submit for ratification no later than March.

Some communities, like the city of Hudson, already had their own reform initiatives under way. Others, like Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls, embraced the mandate as a chance to improve their police departments.

Others have been slow to start. The village of Fort Edward in Washington County, for example, didn’t even form its committee until November. In some cases, critics say law enforcement agencies have made it clear that they’re not terribly interested in the reform effort, and officials have argued that their current policies already meet requirements and that their internal audits are sufficient.

At the same time, local governments and law enforcement agencies across the region are struggling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many municipalities are facing higher costs and sharply lower tax revenues. With emergency federal aid stalled, some communities are considering “defunding” their police departments simply because they’re cutting budgets across the board. Reforms that involve hiring new staff are unlikely to fly.

Although the state’s order requires transparency, some stakeholder committees have been avoiding meeting in person because of the pandemic. The result has effectively been closed meetings in communities that lack a suitable digital platform for broad public participation.


Hudson aims for change
Hudson, the Columbia County seat, has a diverse population of about 6,000 and a police force of 26. Mayor Kamal Johnson, who was elected in 2019 on a platform that called for better policing, released an executive order June 15, three days after the governor’s order, that calls for a 10 percent cut in the city police budget, creation of a commission to improve police-community relations, a new city program to connect people with substance abuse issues to appropriate resources, and an end to accepting military surplus equipment for police use.

Johnson explained in an e-mail interview that the city’s new Police Reconciliation and Advisory Commission was tasked with talking with residents about their experiences with the city police, writing a report for the mayor, and sending out a public survey for more comments. The report was due at the end of the first week of December.

“We will be releasing information soon” about the survey results, which had just come in at the end of November, Johnson wrote.

“I will be putting together a package of reforms to present to the public” based on the report, he added. “Some reforms will need financial backing, but others will need policy changes. We are going to evaluate what can be done now and plan for other items to be completed or taken on by other city agencies.”

The mayor said Hudson’s commission was conceived before the governor’s order but will effectively meet the state’s requirements – and go beyond them.

“All deadlines will be met, but we want to build a five-year plan,” Johnson said. “Some cities are just going through the motions to fulfill the governor’s orders. That will not be Hudson.”


‘On track’ in Glens Falls
Glens Falls has about 15,000 residents and a police force with 30 sworn officers. The city’s Common Council appointed 14 people to a reform committee that includes city officials, members of the police department, people who work in addiction services and mental health, and representatives of various interest groups.

The committee started work in October, but it wasn’t until its fourth meeting, in November, that it tried livestreaming on the city’s YouTube channel. Technical difficulties cut off the livestream, but the city police department has recordings of the meetings and other information about the reform initiative, as well as a place for comments, on its website.


Glens Falls 5th Ward Councilman Jim Clark leads a new 14-member stakeholder committee that will review and recommend changes to the practices and policies of his city’s police department. Joan K. Lentini pho


Glens Falls 5th Ward Councilman Jim Clark leads a new 14-member stakeholder committee that will review and recommend changes to the practices and policies of his city’s police department. Joan K. Lentini photo


A comparison of the city police department’s policies with the governor’s handbook “affirms some things we’re already doing, but there’s always room for improvement,” said Jim Clark, the 5th Ward councilman and chairman of the reform committee.

Glens Falls Assistant Police Chief Joseph Boisclair, who will take over as chief in January when current Chief Anthony Lydon retires, said the committee has identified several areas on which to focus: departmental transparency; how the department engages with the community; officer training; recruiting and retaining diverse, high-quality officers; better ways of gathering and handling public complaints; and how police respond to people with mental health or addiction problems.

Clark said the committee is considering whether it would be better to have someone with more specific training be the first responder to certain types of police calls.
“We’re looking to provide a social worker to address things that don’t need a police officer,” he explained.

Gooden, the local NAACP president, said building a more diverse police force is a priority for the local black community.

“It’s essential at this time,” Gooden said. “You need someone you can identify with. Otherwise there’s no accountability.”

Committee member Jabes Prado, who runs Lower Adirondack Visionary Association, a nonprofit that helps at-risk youth, said he’s had the experience of being a member of a minority group pulled over by police on a dubious pretext.

“Unconscious bias needs to be addressed,” Prado said.
He’s in favor of restorative justice programs, which allow people arrested for low-level offenses to go through court programs that connect them with services, rather than sending them to jail.
Prado said he’s advising several other law enforcement agencies in the area, but he called Glens Falls’ reform committee is “a model structure.”

“We’re right on track,” he said. “We have our ideas out there. The sky’s the limit in what we can do in restructuring police.”

Clark said the committee will draft a plan to present to the Common Council. He encouraged residents to offer comments and suggestions through the police department website.
“We want to know your thoughts,” he said.

Once the reform proposal is completed, committee members “are interested in continuing in some form” to ensure that recommended changes happen, Clark said.
“Once we’re done with this, we’re not done,” he said. “It’s a good group of people. We want to continue.”


‘Robust discussion’ in Saratoga Springs
Saratoga Springs has about 28,000 year-round residents and a police force of 73. The city’s budget depends heavily on sales tax revenues from summer visitors to the Saratoga Race Course, Saratoga Performing Arts Center and other seasonal events and attractions.

This year, with almost all of those attractions closed or canceled, the city expects a 2021 budget reduction of $6.8 million. An initial budget proposal for 2021 would have cut 32 positions from the police force, but the city is looking at ways to prevent public safety layoffs, Police Chief Shane Crooks said at the panel’s online meeting on Nov. 25.

In August, Mayor Meg Kelly appointed 12 people to a police reform task force. Members include Crooks, the city attorney and representatives of the city’s African American, immigrant, college and LGBTQ communities.

The task force set up 12 subcommittees to review “the most impactful areas” and propose revisions to police policies, said Jason Golub, the co-chairman of the panel. Individual subcommittees are focusing on such issues as police culture and mission, the department’s use-of-force policy, data analytics, outreach to high school and college students, community policing, use of body cameras, cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, and the creation of an independent review board -- something local activists have requested.

The department has been criticized for its handling of the case of Darryl Mount Jr., a young black man who died in 2013 of injuries suffered while he was fleeing city police. The city police chief who was in office at the time told reporters he had launched in an internal review of the incident, but he later admitted in a sworn civil deposition that no investigation was done.

The subcommittees have been working independently and will start providing their recommendations, two subcommittees at a time, to the broader task force on Dec. 8, Golub said. The recommendations will be forwarded immediately to the City Council to ensure that there’s time for review and revisions before the April deadline, he said.

All meetings, either in person or online, are open to the public and allow time for public comment, he said.

“Fifteen to 30 people usually attend,” Golub said. “The community is pretty passionate about the issues. There’s a robust discussion. Chief Crooks has attended all the meetings and has come with an open mind.”

Golub, who is a vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the commercial real estate finance firm Walker & Dunlop, said he’d like to see more people talking about “what is the path forward for healing and trust in our community -- that’s our ultimate goal.”

Task force member Terry Diggory of the Saratoga Immigration Coalition said many of the summer employees who work at the racetrack and in the hospitality industry come from outside the United States.

“We’re trying to make sure immigrants’ concerns are included,” he said.
Those concerns include police services for people whose English is limited and how city police interact with federal immigration authorities.

Public outreach is happening “in a variety of ways,” Diggory said.
“We’re all aware of concerns not just locally but nationally,” he said. “The big surprise for everyone is the pressure of the pandemic. There’s a budgetary impact for the police department and everyone else. Defunding of the police is being forced upon city governments.”


A panel of insiders?
The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office has about 270 officers covering more than 800 square miles with a population of about 228,000.

In October, the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors appointed a seven-member group to bring sheriff’s department into compliance with the governor’s executive order. But some critics pointed out that the group is hardly diverse: Six of the seven members are either elected or appointed county officials, including two supervisors, the county undersheriff and the district attorney.

Since late October, the group has met virtually with other law enforcement officials, town supervisors and mayors, school superintendents, and mental health and addiction service providers. Future meetings are planned with representatives of faith groups and community leaders and activists.

Mental health service providers who spoke at the Saratoga County compliance group’s Nov. 18 meeting generally praised how the county’s deputies handle those calls. Sam Bastian, with Four Winds Saratoga, called his organization’s relationship with the Sheriff’s Office “very, very positive.”

But speakers said they wanted more funding for mental health and addiction services to “reduce the necessity of law enforcement being involved in the first place,” as Meg Jordan of Saratoga County Mental Health and Addiction Services explained.

In a series of cases around the nation, police agencies have been faulted for responding to calls involving mental health or addiction crises in ways that ranged from insensitive to deadly.
Michael Prezioso, the county’s mental health commissioner, heads the Saratoga County compliance group. The public can listen in to its meetings, which have a call-in number, and can contact the group via a dedicated email line on the county government’s website, he said. Meeting notes are posted within a few days.

The Sheriff’s Office put together a survey that is available through county and town websites. However, the survey requires the ability to either print or view an accompanying 33-page PDF file as the survey is filled out. If people don’t have the capability to do that, they can email their comments, Prezioso said. The group is working on a separate survey for high school students, he said.

Supervisor Tara Gaston, D-Saratoga Springs, expressed concern in late September that the county didn’t appear to be making progress toward compliance with the governor’s mandate and risked the loss of state funding.

“I think that we’ve made some forward momentum” since then, Gaston said in an interview last month.

Although Undersheriff Richard Castle said at the time that the department already met the fair policing criteria in the governor’s order, “the requirements lie with the governing body, not the sheriff’s department,” Gaston said.

Without an independent review, “we would not have been compliant,” she added.
Gaston said she is still concerned with “how public comment will be brought in.
“Covid makes it hard, but that means we have to try harder,” she said.

Community groups should have been invited to participate, Gaston added.
Although it’s possible for the current compliance committee to handle that outreach, “I’m not sure that’s happening,” she said.


Building community trust
Melanie Trimble, the director of the Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she’s hopeful the governor’s order will lead to better policing but is waiting to see how well individual communities handle the process.

“The NYCLU is supportive of a really robust review of police and funding,” she said. “To the largest extent possible, we want every police department to take this seriously. They need to do an analysis of their records and make details of their policies available to the public.”
Trimble cited the city of Albany’s website as an example “of the information we think task forces ought to have for the public,” including recordings of task force meetings. The city has also started community-police discussions.

“The more people are involved with the police department, the greater the trust and familiarity with each other,” she said. “That will ameliorate some of the tensions.”
On the other hand, “some municipalities are doing very little,” Trimble said.

The effectiveness of the effort will become clear over the coming months, she added.
“Let’s see what changes they come up with and what changes occur,” Trimble said.