SCHENECTADY — A series of state-mandated meetings designed to reshape the Schenectady Police Department with community feedback will begin later this month.
A kick-off virtual meeting is slated for Wednesday, Oct. 21 and will include an overview of the city Police Department.
Altogether, eight meetings will be conducted over a two-week stretch in which panelists from a cross-section of the community — the business sector, neighborhood organizations and youth groups — will offer feedback for how to reform the department.
While the first event is slated to be online only, officials are working with Proctors to provide space for in-person meetings, which will conclude Nov. 10. An online wrap is scheduled for Nov. 12.
Organizers say the plan is for the meetings to be accompanied with Webex, software that will allow for remote participation and viewing.
For the past two months, a steering committee guiding what’s formally dubbed the Schenectady Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative has been planning the effort, the result of an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring police departments statewide to undertake community-driven reforms by April 1 or risk losing state funding.
The panel discussions aren’t intended to be a sprawling community forum in which members of the public randomly take their turn at the mic, but rather are designed to be more carefully cultivated. The steering committee is still trying to decide how to include residents who haven’t been appointed as formal participants.
Each participating group has flagged two representatives to take part in the panel discussions, which will be staggered on different days. For instance, a community group meeting is scheduled for Oct. 22.
Members of that group won’t directly exchange ideas with the public safety group, which meets Nov. 5, one of two meetings on that day.
Joining the community groups are faith-based, business, neighborhood and youth/education breakouts.
City and state police will attend the forums in a listening role, Clifford said.
Officials said they expect each panel to have between 18 and 26 participants, leaving room for roughly two-dozen elected officials and policymakers as observers before bumping up against the state’s 50-person cap on gatherings.
Discussions will be moderated by Jason Benitez, vice president of talent and inclusion at the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce.
Participants will be equipped with “community conversation guidelines” to guide what officials expect will inevitably generate emotional and heated discussion at times.
The guidelines, which Benitez used in similar discussions he moderated during his stint at Union College, include methods to tamp down heated rhetoric, soften language and remind participants that while some may differ in their language and experiences, everyone is participating with the same positive intentions.
And following the disintegration of at least one community meeting earlier this summer when demonstrators shouted over clergy who were attempting to lead a discussion, another guideline asks participants not to talk over each other: “One person, one mic.”
The John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety will assist in analyzing data and helping the panel forge the input into concrete policies.
The Albany-based center will also deliver a presentation on procedural justice, the concept of how police interact with the public and how those interactions shape the public’s trust of the police.
The steering committee met virtually on Wednesday, and expects to meet again next week to iron out any outstanding logistical issues, including how to incorporate participation from city residents who are not formal participants.
While the meetings are tentatively scheduled to run two hours, Police Chief Eric Clifford said planners are weighing how to find a balance between sticking to the parameters and not abruptly cutting off important discussions.
“What kind of latitude are we going to have if the conversations are really good?” Clifford said.
Benitez acknowledged the perceived inability to give all community members a platform can “make or break” the process.
“We don’t want anyone to feel silenced or muted,” Benitez said.
Following the forums, the steering committee will work with the Finn Institute to shape the feedback into concrete policy changes.
After that, the reforms are required to go through the standard legislative process at City Council, which must adopt a final plan by April 1.
Benitez urged participants to temper their expectations and be mindful that the effort will not serve as a permanent fix for all police-related problems.
“We won’t be able to right all issues, or eradicate all injustice, with one series of meetings,” he said.
Schenectady Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative meeting schedule
- Wednesday, Oct. 21: Kick off*
- Thursday, Oct. 22: Community group meeting
- Tuesday, Oct. 27: Presentation on procedural justice by the Finn Institute
- Thursday, Oct. 29: Faith-based groups meeting
- Wednesday, Nov. 4: Neighborhood groups meeting
- Thursday, Nov. 5: Public safety group meeting (afternoon) and business association meeting (evening)
- Tuesday, Nov. 10: Youth/education group meeting
- Thursday, Nov. 12: Wrap-up meeting
* Meetings are tentatively scheduled for the evenings, with exact times to be determined.
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