Schenectady

Schenectady Police reform task force discusses community surveys, timeline

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Categories: News, Schenectady County, The Daily Gazette

SCHENECTADY — The city aims to have invitations to community organizations seeking their participation in police reform meetings in the mail by the end of the week.

“We’ve been fairly aggressive in identifying community groups and organizations,” said city Mayor Gary McCarthy, who is leading the process with Chief Eric Clifford.

Two representatives from each organization will be asked to participate in the community discussions, which will begin this fall.

The steering committee guiding the process met on Wednesday.

Discussion at the brisk, hour-long session centered around community outreach and determining if surveys could be used to glean feedback that can be incorporated into the mandatory public comment process.

At present, roughly 30 people, a cross-section of academics, community leaders, law enforcement, clergy, activists, civil rights groups and city officials, constitute the steering committee.

More stakeholders will be added, and will soon be given materials to parse, including reports on use of force data and arrest demographics.

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 panel, formerly known as the Schenectady Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative, is a result of an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring police departments statewide to undertake community-driven reforms by April 1 at the risk of losing state funding.

By November, the task force will begin to assemble a draft plan incorporating proposed reforms and policy changes, with a ratification period to follow.

“We’re going to have to be real strict with our timeline and stick with it to get this done,” Clifford said.

Forums will be moderated by Jason Benitez, vice president of talent and inclusion at the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce.

Benitez acknowledged discussions will be difficult — and the panel won’t be able to solve every problem — but cited his background in fostering tough discussions during his eight-year stint at Union College.

A key will be brokering discussions between groups with “widely different views” on issues and craft a space for common ground, he said.

“That balance and how we get there is going to be a delicate walk,” Benitez said.

While participating groups will be encouraged to submit testimonials outlining their experiences with policing, conversation will largely revolve around hashing out policy solutions.

Clifford said the department is also working on a presentation that outlines its history, one that will ideally help stimulate dialogue and address outstanding questions and clarify little-understood elements of policing.

Panelists also discussed finding possible synergies with the city of Albany, which is engaged in a similar process.

The John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety will assist in analyzing data and helping the panel forge the input into concrete policies.

The public comment period will begin in early March, with a City Council vote tentatively to follow on March 29.

As part of the public comment period, the steering committee wants to use surveys to glean public input.

Finn Institute director Dr. Robert E. Worden said telephone surveys are “prohibitively expensive” and the lack of funding may render paper surveys unfeasible, leading to a web-based approach.

Iman Ghengis Khan, a member of Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, wondered if Union College students could volunteer to help parse paper survey results.

One option, said Clifford, is partnering with the county library system to facilitate the surveys, including use of computer equipment.

Union College President Dr. David Harris, a sociologist by training, agreed with steering people to libraries and encouraging them to take surveys on mobile devices

“That would be ideal,” said Harris, who also called for more gender diversity on the panel, a viewpoint echoed by Mikayla Foster, an activist with All of Us.

“Pulling in members of our community who hold LGBTQIA/trans identities is absolutely necessary as well as pulling in more members who are women,” Foster said.

The steering committee will hold its next meeting on  Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 2 p.m.

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