A subdued crowd gave the police more praise than criticism Tuesday at the Schenectady City Council’s third meeting on how to improve the department.
“Someone needs to stand up and say thank you to the police for doing their jobs,” said former mayor and current county Legislator Karen Johnson.
Nearly every speaker offered some praise. But several radical changes — including a county takeover of the department — were also proposed, often by the same speakers who first praised the police. Speakers also expressed frustration at the fact that the city seems to hold serious talks about changing the department every few years, after yet another scandal.
“For nine years we’ve been talking about professional standards, stronger police civilian review board, how to go about proactive community policing,” said the Rev. Steve Clunn, pastor of the First United Methodist Church. “I would love for us to get to a point where we’re not just talking. I long for that day.”
Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett took pages of notes during the meeting and said afterward that he will meet with the council soon to discuss proposals raised by the public. He’s got a lot of homework to do. The Rev. Phil Grigsby delivered an eight-page list of recommendations from the Schenectady Committee for Social Justice. Although he, too, began his remarks by saying that he was “deeply grateful” for good police work, Grigsby emphasized that the city seems to have a series of investigations against police officers while public safety commissioners come and go.
“We wonder if broader change is needed,” he said. “We wonder if it’s time for the city and county to seriously consider consolidation.”
He said the city could contract police services from the county.
Johnson said the department needs a stable leader — one who will stay around for many years.
“There’s been tremendous inconsistency in the management of the police department,” she said. “The public would like the reassurance that there is a steady hand on the department.”
She suggested giving career officers more management training to prepare them to lead the department.
Melanie Trimble, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Capital Region Chapter, said officers should start documenting every use of force.
“How are you going to keep your officers accountable if you don’t have a record?” she said.
However, Bennett said after the meeting that he doesn’t like the current regulations, which require police to report any time they touch an arrestee — even to put on handcuffs. He said it would be more reasonable to report every use of force that results in injury or death.
He said he is also changing city policies to document injuries sustained in custody or before arrest.
“I didn’t think there was adequate reporting,” he said, noting that the sheriff’s deputies were documenting injuries once the suspect was delivered to the county jail.
“That’s much too late,” Bennett said. “The investigation has to be started right away, when they’re in the police custody.”
But he said he doesn’t support reports on uses of “minimal” force.
Trimble said she plans to examine the use of force records to see how well the officers are documenting all uses of force. The NYCLU took the city to the Court of Appeals to get access to the use-of-force records, before learning that officers had not been keeping any records.
“I will venture to say there are more serious problems with the department than response time,” Trimble said.
She and others also said the council must stop the police from exhibiting “criminal behavior.”
The Rev. Van. I. W. Stuart, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, said such behavior convinces residents not to cooperate with police.
“Sometimes we see behavior in police on par with the criminal … that does not give us confidence,” he said, adding that such behavior also erodes public willingness to obey the laws that police aren’t following.
Instead, he said, the police should “inspire the community to believe that when something goes wrong, they can call the police and something will get done other than opening themselves up for retribution.”
Some residents have said they won’t tell police about crime they witness, even if they weren’t involved, because their neighbors will attack them for being “snitches.” Mayor Brian U. Stratton has vowed to hold a Stop the Silence summit this winter in response to the “no snitching” attitude in the city.
Stratton did not attend Monday’s meeting. In fact, only four council members listened to the public comment, while Council President Margaret King, Councilman Mark Blanchfield and Councilman Thomas Della Sala ran part of the Finance Committee meeting in a different room.
The session was the third in a series run by Councilman Gary McCarthy, chairman of the Public Safety Committee. In previous sessions, police union President Robert Hamilton and Bennett offered their suggestions for improving the department.
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