If the lawsuit over public access to Schenectady police officer Brian Pommer’s disciplinary file turns on the skills of legal adversaries in a confined courtroom, the scene outside the Schenectady County Courthouse on Wednesday made clear that the societal stakes are higher than the personnel file of any one officer.
About 50 demonstrators from the local All Of Us movement were on the sidewalk with “Black Lives Matter” signs and bullhorn chants for nearly two hours, while a much smaller group from the Liberty Bell Alliance rallied just a few feet away and called for support of the police and for personal liberty.
Despite some nearly nose-to-nose verbal sparring between the competing demonstrators, the events remained peaceful. Later, All of Us members surrounded and shouted back at a local resident who shouted at them from the Liberty Park side of the street. Peacemakers eased the more-confrontational demonstrators away from the man, Anthony Carota, who is known for speaking passionately about law-and-order at public meetings, including City Council and County Legislature meetings.
While city police blocked off vehicle access to Albany Street in front of the courthouse, there wasn’t a uniformed police presence at the demonstrations. However, several police officers watched from a nearby parking garage rooftop.
Community activist Jamaica Miles of Schenectady, a co-founder of All of Us, said the progress of the social movement that has grown out of the Minneapolis murder of Black man George Floyd in May has included the state Legislature’s repeal of the legal provision known as “50-a,” which for decades has protected police officers’ disciplinary records from public release.
The current case in state Supreme Court has the Schenectady Police Benevolent Association suing the city, saying the disciplinary record of Pommer — shown on body camera footage pinning a city man’s head to the ground in early July — should not be released to the public. Based on the 50-a repeal, The Daily Gazette and other news organizations are seeking release of Pommer’s records under the state Freedom of Information Law.
Miles accused the police union of seeking to roll back the progress activists have made. “Should we not know if an officer has multiple disciplinary counts against them?” Miles asked the crowd through her megaphone. “We are here to demand that Officer Pommer’s records be released.”
Participants in both protests gathered at noon, well-ahead of the 2 p.m. court hearing. The counter-protest, which involved eight to ten people who sometimes chanted “Blue Lives Matter” and urged the social activists to follow fundamentalist Christian teachings, dispersed after about 45 minutes. The All of Us protest lasted until the time of the court hearing, when about a half-dozen of the activists were allowed into court, where seating was limited due to COVID-19 social distancing rules.
“It’s not the number, it’s the message,” Liberty Bell Alliance organizer Tom Kennedy said when asked about the smaller turnout from in his group. “We could not allow the message of All of Us, to continue to attack the Schenectady police.” Many supporters, he said, couldn’t attend because they work.
“Ninety-nine percent of police are good. They’re not all bad,” said another participant, Bill Tryon of Coeymans, who carried one of the blue-shaded U.S. flags used by the “Blue Lives Matter” movement.
Miles argued that public access to disciplinary files would improve police/community relations, and police should welcome it. “We are calling for accountability and transparency. It’s in their interest,” she said.