SCHENECTADY — City police have announced the formation of a task force charged with overseeing state-mandated police reform efforts.
Mayor Gary McCarthy and Chief Eric Clifford will co-lead the panel, which also includes Schenectady NAACP President Dr. Odo Butler, Ravi Ishmael of the Schenectady Guyanese Community Center and members of Schenectady Clergy Against Hate.
Details on a series of conversations continue to be hammered out.
“The task force is in the process of establishing a structure, a timeline, discussion points and selecting a moderator for the conversations,” city police said in a statement Friday. “It will be focused on reaching actionable outcomes and seeking police reforms where appropriate.”
The panel comes six weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring police departments statewide to develop plans to improve community relations and policing based on community feedback.
Officials said they hope the task force will continue to produce “meaningful and constructive conversations on policing strategies and improvements” alongside other community involvement strategies.
The City Council must approve a plan by April or risk losing state funding.
City police on Friday also released a pre-recorded discussion between Clifford and community activist William Rivas.
The 40-minute segment, shot June 11 at Proctors and moderated by WNYT News Channel 13’s Chris Onorato, saw the pair discussing the now-familiar events of a May 31 protest that resulted in city police taking a knee with activists, a measure both agreed was a positive first step in improving community relations.
Clifford discussed the department’s efforts to improve frayed relationships during his tenure and wipe away some of the mistrust during scandal-ridden 1990s, including years of community discussions.
Both Rivas and Clifford agreed the May 31 demonstration provided a solid starting point but more work is needed to mend fences between city police and minority communities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death on May 25 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death sparked protests against police brutality and systematic racism throughout the country.
“If we have the community’s trust, and if we have the community’s input, the community will police itself and all we are is agents of the people at that point,” Clifford said.
Rivas said it’s important for activists to have clear demands and benchmarks for policy changes.
“Those conversations are definitely happening,” he said.
And the ongoing dialogue goes both ways, Rivas said, and city residents are also eager to know more about what it’s like to be a police officer and the challenges of the occupation.
Rivas said he believes Clifford is sincere at his efforts at reform.
“I trust in the fact that he is willing to do the work to move forward,” Rivas said.
‘USE OF FORCE’ IN SPOTLIGHT
The discussion took place the day before Cuomo’s executive order mandating the panels — and at the same exact time the community activist group All of Us assembled at City Hall to roll out their 13 demands for reform.
While sanguine, the conversation was also filmed three weeks before a violent altercation between a Schenectady police officer on July 6, an encounter that instantly reshuffled the local landscape and lent the demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism a renewed sense of urgency.
Upon responding to a report of slashed tires, Schenectady police Officer Brian Pommer knelt on suspect Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud’s neck area and punched him a half-dozen times in an attempt to subdue him while taking him into custody.
The altercation, which was filmed by Gaindarpersaud’s and uploaded to social media, drew immediate parallels to Floyd’s death.
While the two altercations had similarities — both smartphone-filmed encounters involved minority suspects accused of petty crimes being subdued by cops using controversial holds — key details differed, among them that Gaindarpersaud’s encounter was not fatal. Floyd died after the officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd and others begged the officer to stop.
And while Gaindarpersaud claims Pommer’s knee was on his neck, Clifford contends it was his head, and that he was resisting arrest. In the video, Pommer’s knee appears to be on Gaindarpersaud’s neck area as he’s resisting arrest.
Clifford acknowledged in the filmed discussion on June 11 that he realized police brutality is “clearly” a problem after watching the clip of Floyd’s death.
“Police need to understand they don’t need to be as hard and as rough when they use force,” Clifford said in the discussion. “You could use less force to accomplish exactly what you’re doing.”
Oftentimes when responding to a call, adrenaline begins to flow, which is why it’s important for officers be accompanied by a partner, Clifford said.
“They may be doing things they don’t recognize they’re doing, and that’s why the officer that is standing over their shoulder needs to maybe tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, get off his neck,’” Clifford said. “And if he doesn’t get off, then you pull him off, and you’re not afraid what the repercussions are going to be afterwards. Not only are they in our policy, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Pommer responded to the call alone and tackled Gaindarpersaud after he fled from being taken into custody.
Gaindarpersaud wasn’t subdued and handcuffed until two backup officers arrived.
An internal probe was ordered by the mayor after the incident.
“Investigation is complete and the report is being finalized,” Clifford said on Friday. “I expect to receive the final report within a couple weeks.”
Rivas and Clifford also discussed at length the complicated dynamic underpinning police and people of color.
Just one interaction, positive or negative, can shape lifelong perceptions, said Rivas, who described a city cop giving him and his pals a break years ago.
Fear of death at the hands of law enforcement is very real, he said.
“It comes down to self-preservation of life,” Rivas said.
Rivas on Friday said the controversial arrest didn’t derail recent progress, but did present some hurdles, largely due to the immense amount of energy required by activists to respond to and study the situation.
“That incident didn’t offer a lot of momentum,” Rivas said. “It slowed a lot of stuff down.”
When it comes to the newly announced task force and future conversations, it’s critical that the younger crop of activists be brought to the table and included, Rivas said.
“We want young people to know that their voices matter — their ideas and their experiences,” Rivas said. “We don’t want to take their energy for granted.”
The video shot by local filmmaker Noah Friedman can be viewed at Schenectady Police Department’s Facebook page.