Police reform panels coming together in Schenectady

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Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — A roadmap for the city Police Department’s state-mandated reforms is emerging.

The task force guiding the process is sending invitations to community groups for participation in a series of community meetings this fall. The sessions will be open to the public.

Groups will first meet internally to discuss their priorities for policy reform. 

Afterward, each will select two representatives to participate in a series of what city Police Chief Eric Clifford said will be between six and eight moderated discussions. 

Organizations with similar focuses will be grouped together.

“We’re looking at the month of September to start the discussions,” Clifford said earlier this month. 

Officials hope to engage community activists, neighborhood associations, youth groups and business leaders, among others.

The expanding group of stakeholders includes the city police’s union, the Civilian Police Review Board and Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, as well one member of All of Us, the community activists calling for reform and organizing protests across the Capital Region.

More will be added.

“Behind the scenes, we’re still combing through details, structure and leaving no stone unturned during the process,” said Carissa Vazzana, an assistant to the mayor who is coordinating the effort.

City police will attend the sessions, Clifford said, but plan to take a listening role. 

The next task force meeting is Aug. 26. 

Meetings are being recorded and will be made publicly available in an effort to foster a sense of transparency, Clifford said.

George Floyd’s death while being taken into custody by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 sparked nationwide reckoning on racism and police brutality.

The panels are a result of an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June ordering police departments statewide to undertake community-driven reforms by April 1 at the risk of losing state funding. 

A 139-page state guidebook outlining the reform process was released on Monday.

John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety in Albany will assist in analyzing data and assessing information “against existing bodies of scientific evidence on and best practices in police strategies and management.” 

By November, the task force will begin to assemble a draft plan incorporating proposed reforms and policy changes based on the feedback, Vazzana told the City Council on Monday.

The final phase is the ratification timeline between January and March, a process which includes a public comment period. 

The City Council must ultimately approve the plan. 

TENSIONS FLARE

While the structure is falling into place, tensions continue across multiple fronts. 

City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield urged her colleagues on Monday to familiarize themselves with police policies and procedures, as well as have preliminary conversations and keep each other apprised of developments.

“I see our first order of business is reviewing our current policies,” Porterfield said. “We don’t know what to change if we don’t know what exists.”

Most City Council members have attended a series of community-organized forums featuring police representatives this summer, including an event last month at Grace and Mercy Church on State Street that was cut short when All of Us verbally clashed with clergy members and police.

Several lawmakers said the City Council should let the task force’s efforts unwind unimpeded.

City Council President John Mootooveren advised against “parallel discussions,” while Councilman John Polimeni said internal talks would “undermine” the task force.

“I think for us to do at this point is to sit back, listen a bit, listen to the community, see what they have to say and put something together as a community representing everyone,” Polimeni said.

Porterfield countered that she was not attempting to undermine the task force’s efforts — she said she found the insinuation “offensive” — but was rather asking lawmakers to educate themselves so that when the time comes for City Council to ratify the reforms, they’re well-versed in existing policies. 

 

“I wasn’t asking for us to have separate meetings,” Porterfield said.

PANEL QUESTIONED

At the same time, All of Us members have largely dismissed the task force. 

“They say welcome to the table, but don’t take up too much space,” said Mikayla Foster, the All of Us activist who has been appointed to the panel. “I don’t even want to be at the table.”

Foster, a member of the LGBTQ community who uses the pronouns they and them, believes they were intended to be a token presence and was dismissive of the task force’s efforts. Foster questioned if its work would result in genuine and lasting reform.

Foster, who also alleged other panelists talked over them and faulted officials for failing to use the proper gender pronouns, will continue to participate in an effort not to be “out-strategized.”

“Just like most of my experiences with the police and the mayor, it feels like an unsafe environment,” Foster said.

Joining Clifford and city Mayor Gary McCarthy as the nucleus of the task force are Dr. Odo Butler, president of the Schenectady NAACP, and Ravi Ishmael, president of the Schenectady Hindu Temple/Guyanese Community Center.

Tensions between young activists and police have flared this summer. 

Schenectady has been spared the violent unrest that swept through cities across the nation, including Albany on May 30. 

The next day, Clifford and his officers took a knee with demonstrators, a measure that both police and All of Us-associated activists acknowledged at the time was a positive first step in improving frayed relations.

But tensions between activists and police were inflamed following a violent altercation between a city police officer and suspect on July 6 that resulted in a suspect being chased, tackled, placed in a controversial hold and punched repeatedly. 

Since then, the relationship has deteriorated into a mutual sense of distrust. 

ACTIVISTS: PICK UP THE PACE

Three-dozen activists gathered outside of city police headquarters on Tuesday morning while the suspect involved in the altercation, Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud, appeared in court on charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Gaindarpersaud was charged following the altercation with Officer Brian Pommer, who was investigating a report of slashed tires.

Activists faulted what they perceived as the glacial pace in wrapping up the internal police probe into the incident.

“Frustrating I don’t even think touches the tip of the iceberg,” Foster said. “It’s frustrating when I stub my toe in the morning — it’s maddening. It’s deeply traumatizing, and deeply dehumanizing to see that people who perpetuate harm against people like me, and people not like me, literally continue to get a paycheck while we wait for court dates for them to tell us nothing when it’s on video.”

Sustained pressure is needed to prod police into genuine reforms, activists said, and that adoption of their 13 demands — which included a ban on “chokeholds, strangleholds and hogties” — would have prevented episodes like the Gaindarpersaud altercation.

“No change will happen if we don’t demand it,” said All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles, who said the activists will start organizing their own community meetings with details on the initial event, tentatively scheduled for Jerry Burrell Park, slated to be released by the end of the week.

Pommer remains on desk duty, while Gaindarpersaud’s case was adjourned until Sept. 8.

“We’re not interested in a plea bargain,” said Gaindarpersaud’s attorney, Derek S. Andrews, who echoed calls for a speedy conclusion of the investigation.

Clifford has said the investigation is complete and the report has to go through a series of internal reviews before its release, which could come as soon as the end of the month.

Clifford declined to address All of Us’ criticisms.

“I am not responding to anything that group does or says,” Clifford said on Tuesday. “Their actions speak for themselves.”

Clifford added: “Meanwhile, the men and women of the Schenectady Police Department continue to do their job answering calls for help and service and investigate the nearly 100 percent increase in gun violence [confirmed shots fired] and over 110 percent increase in confirmed shooting victims.”

Thomas Kennedy waged a quiet counter-protest on Tuesday, sitting in a lawn chair clutching a Blue Lives Matter flag.

Kennedy hailed the city Police Department under Clifford’s leadership, and said McCarthy is more attuned to civil rights than any of his recent counterparts.

“This is ridiculous,” Kennedy said. “People are getting exhausted from the anti-police rhetoric.” 

 

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