SCHENECTADY — Lt. Ryan Macherone said a big part of his job is sitting in a lawn chair and listening to people.
And that’s exactly what he did during a forum on community policing held on Wednesday in the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood while attendees peppered him with questions .
Again and again, Macherone and Sgt. Nick Mannix nodded with the same general refrain:
We’re trying, but could do better.
“Why is it that as a Black man, I feel nervous getting pulled over?” said Ronald Butler. “I should feel OK just showing my license.”
“We need to be doing anti-racism training,” he said.
Butler also asked about what the city police department is doing to comply with the release of police disciplinary records, which is now permissible following the repeal of a state statute shielding their disclosure last month.
While the mood was civil, the crowd of roughly 50 people was assertive in voicing their concerns, speaking in raw terms and sharing their stories.
Mastrow Young asked about background checks for officers and wondered about the implications of insulated rookies from homogenous communities joining the force.
“They bring that anger with them to the job,” Young said.
Macherone, who serves as the city police department’s director of community engagement, said screening should be factored into the hiring process.
“I think we should ask more about what you’re doing for your community before you get here,” Macherone said. “I think life experience should be a part of our job.”
And on racist cops: “If your mission is to be racist in this department, go be racist somewhere else.”
The forum at Refreshing Spring Church of God on Georgetta Dix Plaza comes amid a national reckoning on race fueled by the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, and fanned locally by a violent altercation between a Schenectady police officer and suspect last week.
City police have pledged to step up communication with the public and the event was at least the third this week giving residents the opportunity to engage in a dialogue.
In response to questions posed by attendees about a residency requirement for city cops, Macherone and Mannix said it is advantageous for police to live in the communities they serve.
“Schenectady was home for us and that’s something important for me,” said Mannix, who lives in the city. “I want to live in the city I’m policing.”
Terry McDougald said both the city police department and leadership needs to be more diverse.
“We need to get more minorities on the police force,” she said. “They can make all the promises they want, but racism is here to stay.”
McDougald also suggested someone should mount an early challenge to city Mayor Gary McCarthy, who isn’t up for re-election until 2023.
Doing so would allow that candidate to gain momentum, she said.
“Instead of us talking about change, let’s make change,” McDougald said.
Throughout the meeting, Macherone and Mannix pointed out the department has bolstered reforms in recent years, and is continuing to strengthen community policing techniques that rely on metrics aside from raw arrest numbers to judge if their efforts are working.
“Measuring a police department’s success by the number of arrests is foolish,” Macherone said.
The department, however, has to do better at education and communication, they conceded.
“If we don’t have a lane to communicate, that’s where we’re going to run into strong issues,” Mannix said.
Marva Isaacs said the department has done much to cleanse itself of its scandal-ridden past, which included a federal corruption probe that sent four cops to state prison.
“There’s a great change in Schenectady police officers,” Isaacs said.
Cynthia Farmer, who chairs Schenectady NAACP’s education committee, said police need to have a more prominent presence in city schools, bolstering outreach and mentorship programs.
But one former student pushed back against their presence, prompting the most pointed exchange of the 90-minute forum.
Janiiya Hart, a recent Schenectady City School Distrct graduate who is now a student at Colgate University, said many students don’t want an increased presence because they’ve grown up in heavily-policed neighborhoods and witnessed traumatic events.
“You’re growing up with someone you’re seen violent in the community,” Hart said. “It’s more for the police department than the child.”
Hart also said more officers need to attend the community discussions, a viewpoint echoed by city Councilwoman Marion Porterfield after the meeting.
Macherone and Mannix already appear to understand the community’s concerns, she said.
“There needs to be more of a conversation with officers who don’t understand how people are feeling,” said Porterfield, who attended the meeting.
Macherone acknowledged the criticism.
“There needs to be other officers sitting here,” he said. “I own that.”
Macherone declined to comment on the altercation between Officer Brian Pommer and Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud last week, citing the ongoing internal probe.
Debate continues to ripple through the community, and briefly surfaced during the forum, sparking a brief exchange between Carol Eto, who lives next door to Gaindarpersaud, and Maria Pacheco.
“If you look at the video, head or neck, it was his head,” Eto said, who defended Pommer and called for people to withhold judgement and not “jump on the bandwagon.”
Pacheco shot back: “You’re not an investigator.”
Pacheco later pressed the city lawmakers attending the meeting, including City Council President John Mootooveren and Councilmembers Ed Kosiur, Carmel Patrick and John Polimeni, where they stood on the 13 demands for police reform issued by community activists All of Us.
“It has to start with a conversation and needs to include the whole community,” said Kosiur, who also called for more youth engagement
While hundreds of young activists descended on City Hall Monday, prompting its early closure, few appeared to be present at Wednesday’s event.
“We’re having conversations about bringing young people in,” said Porterfield, who acknowledged the Schenectady NAACP is taking a different approach than the younger generation of activists, who have pledged to use non-violent civil disobedience to further their goals.
All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles attended the forum but did not speak publicly.
City police adopted several demands issued by the Schenectady NAACP last week, including de-escalating training and stripping certification from officers found to have used unwarranted deadly physical force.
Portia Alston, first vice chair of the Schenectady NAACP, stressed the need for ongoing community involvement and dialogue.
“The mayor and chief are open to a conversation and we just need to set it up so we can do that,” Alston said.
All of Us met virtually with Chief Eric Clifford and last week, who said he won’t respond directly to their demands until the city engages in a public discussion with the broader community.
McCarthy said he envisions small group meetings to continue until at least Labor Day, when the city will begin to host broader events.
All of Us criticized what they perceived to be the sluggish pace of progress on Thursday, noting the community has long called for immediate change, and their demands are the result of surveys, community conversations and personal stories shared at more than two dozen actions and events.
“The idea that our communities should continue to wait for change and be patient or to accept the minimal changes that have been presented only after the thunderous roar of constant protests and actions is further proof that those who have the power to help create change are continuing to ignore those amongst us who are most harmed, exploited and oppressed,” All of Us said in a statement. “We have chosen the tactic of listening and lifting up the voices of the people, and of being peaceful in the face of violence.”
The next community conversation is scheduled for July 29 at 6:30 p.m. at Grace Mercy Church.
All of Us’ 13 demands
- Prosecution of all law enforcement and corrections officers for all violations of the civil rights of all people of color, marginalized individuals and all peoples for, but not limited to, killings, beatings, false arrests and harassment.
- Diversion of seized proven drug profits from convicted drug charges back into the community.
- Automatic firing for all racist text, emails, letters, social media posts, phone calls and so-called private conversations by any law enforcement officers or corrections officers.
- Chargeable offense and process of Community Response Review with recommendation powers for all “living while Black hate crimes” for private citizens who commit them and the police who attempt to enforce them.
- Automatic firing for all disengaged or damaged body cams.
- Abolition of no-knock warrants.
- End all ticket writing incentive programs, speed trap schemes, parking violations and traffic stops for petty violations.
- Ban non-recorded sobriety tests.
- Ban chokeholds, strangleholds and hogties for all law enforcement and correction officers.
- Ban shooting at moving vehicles.
- Require all force to be reported with racial data captured for both the law enforcement officer or correction officer and the injured party and review by the Civilian Police Review Board with full access to un-redacted files and evidence and the power to submit to the state Attorney General for further review, investigation and potential charges.
- Anti-racism training for law enforcement and detention facility employees.
- Demilitarize law enforcement and defunding of law enforcement agencies with funds reallocated to Community Based Restorative Groups for conflict resolution and restorative practices and other community-based services and solutions.