SCHENECTADY — Deborah Rembert recounted once watching a mass of police officers swarm around a neighborhood home.
They forcefully entered the residence to only apprehend someone with mental health issues suspected of a minor crime.
The show of force was unnecessary, she said.
“They should be better equipped to deal with the public,” said Rembert, a member of the Schenectady NAACP.
That outsized response, in turn, creates a sense of distrust that damages relationships between city police and the broader community, damage that can be irreversible, she said.
Other members of a panel designed to discuss changes to the city Police Department agreed, saying it’s that type of police-induced trauma that sours people on policing and hampers recruitment efforts, as well as the department’s relationship with the community.
Representatives from about a dozen community groups met virtually on Thursday in the first panel discussion as part of the Schenectady Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative, the state-mandated effort designed to reshape policing with public input.
Discussion for the panel broke out along two tracks:
Panelists pointed out longstanding examples of how systemic racism manifests itself in policing, including outsized responses and unpleasant attitudes with the general public, and said such a system must be entirely reconstructed in order to bring about a more equitable society.
All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles called for disinvestment of financial resources from the department, a practice commonly referred to as “defunding.”
“Take that money directly out of the police force, period,” Miles said.
Others called for a more measured approach designed to produce tangible results.
Carl Williams, a member of the Schenectady NAACP, wants more “data delivered in easily digestible fashion” to guide policymaking and the allocation of resources and called on Chief Eric Clifford to start holding regular public forums.
Schenectady NAACP, he said, also wants the department to boost funding for mental health issues and social work.
Among the consensus reached in the two-hour session:
The city Police Department needs to be more diverse in order to erode diminished trust; law enforcement should treat suspects more respectfully; and that the Civilian Police Review Board should be more transparent and independent from police leadership.
The panel discussion was first in a series of discussions designed for the public to offer feedback to the city Police Department, which must undertake community-driven internal reforms under the order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year. A meeting introducing the reform effort was held Wednesday.
The city is working with the Albany-based John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, which will wrap the feedback into concrete policy proposals and present it to the department.
The City Council must adopt a plan by April 1 at the risk of losing state funding.
Panelists didn’t agree on everything.
Williams wants to see bolstered police presence in the City School District interacting with kids starting at a younger age, a measure he believes would both build inroads with youngsters and help efforts to diversity the department.
Miles was dismissive of the concept of cops shooting hoops with students.
“What you’re doing is sending abusers into situations where people they’ve harmed are interacting with them again,” Miles said.
City resident Imzak Mohammed acknowledged the presence of cops can be triggering.
But he still wants to see how police and communities can come together and interact and learn from each other, a measure he said will facilitate stronger relationships.
“The Guyanese community is looking for more community engagement and looking to come together as a whole,” Mohammed said.
The panel saw a blend of representatives from civic organizations and activist groups.
Joining Schenectady NAACP and All of Us were reps from Jack’s Place, Schenectady Community Ministries, Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority, Schenectady County Action Program and YWCA North Eastern NY, among others.
Faith-based groups and clergy will meet next Thursday.
Amid talk of what the department could do to build a sense of trust, Miles said the department should lead by example.
The attempt of the union representing the city Police Department to partially block the release of a city police officer’s disciplinary file after engaging in a controversial arrest this summer doesn’t bode well, Miles said.
“There’s so many different examples, it’s beyond comprehension at this point at why’s even a question because for some of us, it’s obvious,” Miles said.
Mikayla Foster, an organizer with All of Us, echoed those sentiments, and said police should be fully transparent.
“There shouldn’t be anything private about policing, because you’re policing a community that oftentimes you’re not even a part of,” Foster said.
Foster also said city police need to be more verbal in speaking about against ills in the department.
Several attendees agreed the department needs to be more diverse.
Just nine people of color serve on the 151-member force.
Rachel Curtis, of Schenectady Community Ministries, called for more anti-racism training,
“There are cops on the ground with little to no experience with people of color, and I know this because I went to high school with a lot of them,” Curtis said.
Maxine Brisport of Schenectady County Action Programs said academic curriculums need to be revised to start teaching about inequality, bias, privilege and social justice at a younger age.
City police listened and took notes.
In brief introductory remarks, Clifford acknowledged the erosion of trust over the years and apologized for several high-profile cases that cast the department under dark cloud, including the death of Andrew Kearse in the back of a patrol car in 2017, which resulted in a $1.3 million settlement to his widow.
“I’d like to apologize to the family of Andrew Kearse, his mother, his wife Angelique, and his children,” Clifford said. “I acknowledge Andrew deserved better from us on the day he died.”
Clifford also apologized on behalf of the department for David Sampson, a 27-year-old city resident who filed a federal lawsuit after police picked him up at his Hamilton Hill home and dropped him off on a rural Glenville road without his boots in 1999.
The city ultimately paid out $240,000 in a civil suit.
There were few fireworks in the discussion, which was moderated by Jason Benitez, vice president of talent and inclusion at the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce.
At one point, retired Assistant Police Chief Jack Falvo said building trust is a two-way street, and recounted anecdotes about police trying to make in-roads with students at schools only to be rebuffed by their parents.
“If you want to build trust, it has to go both ways,” said Falvo, who participated in his capacity as co-founder of the non-profit Jack’s Place.
Foster pushed back, criticizing his use of the phrase “minorities.”
William Rivas, co-founder of Save Our Streets, said he hoped to emerge from the forum with a clear path toward sustained action.
“My focus is always equitable change,” Rivas said. “I’m really here for the work. I’m really interested in the tangible efforts we pull out of this.”
Discussions resume Tuesday with a presentation by the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety.