Schenectady County

Schenectady police panel’s hiatus draws ire

The Civilian Police Review Board, which struggled to maintain enough members to hold meetings last y

The Civilian Police Review Board, which struggled to maintain enough members to hold meetings last year, has now taken the summer off.

In the meantime, the police department’s Internal Affairs office is still investigating complaints filed against police officers. Many cases are awaiting the board’s review, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said.

“There’s plenty for them to do,” he said, adding that he was frustrated by the board’s decision to go on hiatus.

“There’s no excuse, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We can give them the cases they need.”

Review board member Fred Lee said the board took the summer off partly because Internal Affairs officer Stephen LaVare retired.

“We’re off for the summer. We figured, give them the summer to get caught up,” he said. “We hope to hit it hard in the fall.”

But Bennett said his department doesn’t need a break. There are only “a very small number” of cases awaiting Internal Affairs action, he said, and many others are ready for the review board.

He wants the board to get to work.

“If we’re short-handed, we’re short-handed — that’s no reason not to do what has to be done,” he said.

Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy was surprised to learn that the board had taken the summer off.

He wants the police to categorize the pending cases and then send the most important ones to the review board.

“Some cases are of what I might call a more urgent nature. Others are more routine and less time sensitive,” he said. “If there’s something that’s more time sensitive, I might ask the board to reconsider their decision. Hopefully we could reach some kind of compromise.”

The board is supposed to review the police department’s decisions on each complaint, adding a check-and-balance that was intended to create greater faith in the department’s disciplinary process.

But review board members say they have little means to verify information in the complaints, forcing them to often decide that the complaint could not be proven true or false. In most cases, they said, the only witnesses were the complainant and the officer — a he-said, she-said situation in which no decision could be made.

They have repeatedly asked for permission to hire an investigator to independently review complaints, gathering witness statements beyond that of the person who wrote the complaint.

The request was blocked by the police union, leading some review board members to threaten to resign in 2009.

McCarthy said he thought other compromises had been made that resolved the board’s complaints.

Officers have now each been assigned a number, so review board members can see whether the same officer is cited in multiple complaints — and can finally understand exactly what the police are accused of doing. Previously, all names were blacked out before the board read the complaints.

Those redactions sometimes made it impossible for board members to determine what had happened, because even the complainant’s name was sometimes blacked out. With no numbers or other symbols differentiating the various names in the complaint, board members couldn’t tell who did what to whom.

“That’s what I call over-redacting. It creates a narrative that invites interpretations that may not be correct,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said board members had no way of knowing whether the police officer was accused of hitting the resident, or the resident was described hitting the police officer. A narrative that might have described a fight in which both sides exchanged blows could be misinterpreted as a fight in which the officer repeatedly beat the resident.

Now, he said, the narratives are clear — yet still anonymous.

He thought that would lead to a more efficient and effective review board.

“I thought we were moving toward a more functional working relationship,” he said.

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