SCHENECTADY — Trust of police in the community is low. People generally feel unsafe. And more community engagement, police substations, foot patrols and mental health funding would likely help to improve frayed relationships.
Those are among the consensus points reached by the religious community in the latest panel discussion driving the city’s police reform efforts.
“For the Black and brown community, there is a very real sense of urgency to this matter,” said the Rev. Nicolle Harris of Duryee Memorial A.M.E Zion Church on Hamilton Hill. “It’s literally a life or death sense of urgency on this. For us, there is no time.”
The city Police Department must undertake community-driven reforms under the order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year at the risk of losing state funding.
Roughly 20 panelists participated in the forum on Thursday, the second in a series of five city-sponsored sessions chunking different groups together to offer feedback.
Participants said police generally need to rethink how they respond to mental health calls and broadly called for officers to be more engaged in the community.
Police Chief Eric Clifford estimated just 10 to 15 percent of the 150-officer department lives in the city.
Harris wondered about the cultural ramifications of that divide.
“It’s a dangerous thing to not be familiar with culture, and it’s even more dangerous to be familiar with culture through media,” Harris said.
Molain Gilmore, a member of Refreshing Spring Church of God in Hamilton Hill, called for a residency requirement.
“The police need to live in the city limits,” Gilmore said. “If you’re in my neighborhood, you have a tendency to treat me different, or better, because you know me.”
Do people feel safe?
Responses were mixed:
Harris recalled when her congregation’s online Bible study was hacked by vitriol-spewing racists earlier this summer.
“Would that have happened in the building, and how much more dangerous would it have been if we were in the building?” Harris said.
The death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police ratcheted up tensions in the Black community and in churches this summer, Harris said.
“Do I feel more safe? Not necessarily with everything that’s going on.”
The Rev. Dustin Wright, a member of Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, attended Black Lives Matter demonstrations this summer as a “presence of peace.”
White supremacists were a fairly regular presence, he said, which inflamed tensions and initiated issues, he said.
“I’d love it if local police were to be increasingly mindful of that,” Wright said.
Moderator Jason Benitez said clergy and members of the faith-based community have keen insight into racial issues, and churches have historically played a central role in social justice movements.
“People open up to you and share things with you that they may not share with others,” Benitez said.
Trust in city police — at least viewed through the prism of many of their parishioners — is low.
“If you are a person of color, the fear is there,” said Sister Ann Brink of St. Joseph’s Place on Albany Street. “Many of the people I hang with are very fearful for many reasons.”
Lois Mitchell, a member of Duryee Memorial, fears for young Black men, including those leaving church wearing suits and ties.
“It’s very, very hard for me to feel trusting,” Mitchell said.
Clifford in a discussion with community groups last week acknowledged that trust has eroded over the years as a result of several high-profile cases, and pledged to work to reverse that culture.
The panels aren’t just a way for people to air their grievances:
Benitez urged participants to pitch concrete ideas for policy changes.
At present, complaints about police misconduct to the Civilian Police Review Board are filtered through the city Police Department or City Hall and the body does not have subpoena power.
Ceci Cain, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society in the city’s GE Realty Plot, said the panel should be independent.
“I think it’s hard for members of an institution to be held accountable by other members of that institution,” Cain said.
Others advocated for more police sub-stations and foot patrols.
“Foot patrols allows both the patrolman and civilian to interact with each other and get to know each other,” said Peter Bernardi of St. Paul the Apostle Church on Albany Street.
Gilmore said a police substation was initially slated for the Electric City Barn on Craig Street, which now hosts a small outpost, but not a fully-fledged substation.
“That was a reason we as a community signed on with The Community Builders,” Gilmore said. “We all jumped on the bandwagon and it just didn’t happen.”
Mitchell recalled a now-shuttered substation on Albany Street.
“I have to tell you I felt safer when that police satellite was there,” Mitchell said. “The presence of police in the community enhanced the relationship of people in the community with the police officers who were in that station.”
Frank Ranucci of St. Anthony’s Church on Seward Place suggested mandatory community service that would require officers to volunteer in food pantries, soup kitchens and other charitable organizations.
“Put some people together and think of a way to have officers volunteer their time to serve an agency that serves our community in total,” Ranucci said.
Some said more funding is needed for mental health services, which would reduce the number of police calls.
“They’re very, very limited in Schenectady, said Vivette Ram of Christ Church on Hamilton Hill, who cited long wait lists for appointments.
“I think it’s a complex problem and I have to give police credit when they respond to something when it’s at a crisis point,” Ram said.
Tom Comparin said the topic is often discussed by the congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Society, and wondered if other agencies could respond to reduce the burden.
“And not ask the police to do things that they are not ultimately best trained for, and allow other people to respond and help more,” he said.
Police work with Albany-based Northern Rivers Family Services in crisis situations, said Lt. Ryan Macherone, but logistics can often be challenging — particularly during a fast-evolving situation.
Cain said when activists discuss “defunding” the police, this is what they’re referring to: reallocating funding for mental health services, education and other programming.
Others said more data is needed to drive policymaking, including the racial breakdown on motorists issued traffic tickets, for instance.
That, in turn, will highlight problem areas, said Andrew Chestnut, an elder at First Reformed Church in the city’s Stockade neighborhood.
“Data like that would help understand where policies and practices are leading us astray,” he said.
Cain said city police already have a template for change and pointed at the 13 demands released by All of Us in July.
City police issued a formal response last week. But many were simply legal arguments for why the reforms could not be implemented, Cain said.
“It’s disappointing when given the opportunity for change, the Schenectady Police Department has not taken the opportunity to change, and I have not felt listened to,” Cain said. “The point is to say the law is wrong in this scenario and you need to change your department policies.”
The city is working with the Albany-based John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety to wrap feedback into policy proposals that will be presented to the department.
City Council must adopt the changes by April 1.
Panelists delivered a mixed scorecard when it comes to how well city police prevented crime.
Christine Palmer, member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Hill, pointed at a suspected drug house in the Central State Street neighborhood where she said residents openly shoot up.
“They see stuff going on there and they do absolutely nothing,” Palmer said. “It’s very sad.”
Ranucci recounted when someone disrupted services at St. Anthony’s.
Cops showed “great patience, passion and understanding” when they arrived, he said.
“They displayed great concern and were very knowledgeable,” Ranucci said. “I think there are many individual cases like that and they don’t get talked about enough.”
Wright said problems in policing aren’t attributed as much to individual officers as much as the institution of policing as a whole, “one where we have a police force made up of incredibly dedicated talented officers and staff, but also folks caught up in an antiquated system of policing.”
“Four-hundred years of racism make people angry, and that’s not about the individual officers,” Wright said.
Clifford said the department will look into problem points that surface during the discussions, which resume Tuesday when neighborhood organizations meet.
“If something catches our attention or doesn’t meet our expectations of what we as a police agency are doing, we will look into it,” Clifford said.