SCHENECTADY — The city has concluded the public outreach phase of the police reform process, capping a series of nine meetings that unfolded at a breakneck pace over the past three weeks.
But they’re only at the midway point.
“The hardest part is over, but we’re not done yet,” city Police Chief Eric Clifford said.
Officials offered a debriefing on Thursday, touting metrics and outlining the next phase of the process, which will now be led by the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, who will crunch data and shape public feedback into specific policy proposals that will be presented back to City Hall.
The city will continue to collect testimonials and surveys for an additional three weeks.
Recommendations returned by the Finn Institute will be sent back to the steering committee which has been guiding the process for further discussion.
Officials hope to get the proposals to the City Council by mid-February before the state-mandated April 1 ratification deadline.
Clifford indicated the department will take immediate steps to boost community engagement.
“We’re going to take community engagement to the next level,” Clifford said. “We can make changes without necessarily calling them reforms.”
Common themes emerged throughout the 12 hours of six moderated panel discussions, including the sense of distrust people of color have toward the police.
Officials invited 183 community members from 88 organizations to participate.
While panelists were encouraged to share their experiences — and they have, many in raw and emotional exchanges — they’ve also been prodded to identify specific policy proposals for reform.
Emerging areas of consensus include the need for a more diverse force, expanded foot patrols, additional training for officers, broader community engagement, a shift in how police respond to mental health calls and a more transparent and independent Civilian Police Review Board.
Panelists representing youth and education groups huddled in the final virtual panel on Tuesday, engaging in a wide-reaching discussion delving into the legacy of systematic racism and possible solutions.
William Rivas, co-founder of Save Our Streets, called for more equity in creating job opportunities in impoverished areas, and for more “connective tissue” to link residents to those options.
At the same time, the community must work on their end to improve relationships with the police, he said, and engage in self-empowerment to break misconceptions that can be perpetuated for generations.
“Miseducated people,” Rivas said, “misinform each other.”
Rivas pointed at his own experiences growing up in Hamilton Hill, which saw him embrace a gang lifestyle.
“I grew up extremely angry with the police and I didn’t want anything to do with them,” Rivas said.
Tyler Outlaw agreed with the need for community buy-in.
“There’s work that needs to be done on both ends,” Outlaw said.
Echoing refrain from business owners, clergy and neighborhood leaders, participants broadly said they want police to be more involved in public life.
Doing so would have myriad benefits, from restoring frayed trust to reducing excessive force, while at the same time building up goodwill from youngsters at an early age, engagement that would also aid in recruitment efforts for a department where a majority of officers are white and live outside city limits.
Participants also debated the merits of a police presence in schools, long a hot topic in the city.
“Generally speaking, I think it’s a bad idea,” said Ebony Belmar, a social worker in the Schenectady City School District.
And should officers be required to respond to situations, care should be taken to minimize distress, she said.
“I think any officer who is doing that would need a significant amount of training to not re-traumatize our students and our adults,” Belmar said.
Patty Paser, assistant to the superintendent, said she was not in favor of school-based police officers.
“By bringing in law enforcement on a regular basis, we’ve lost sight for what we do… it would just create more of a police-to-prison pipeline,” Paser said. “I don’t think that would be a good thing for our learning environment.”
Others welcomed the concept, but said officers should be in plain clothes.
Among the new suggestions floated by panelists:
Outlaw said kids should be trained to ask officers to write down their name and badge number during interactions.
Doing so will give civilians a tool should they need to follow up, he said, and would promote a sense of accountability.
The concept dawned on him after a recent interaction with an officer that he described as negative.
“It just didn’t feel right,” Outlaw said. “It was my saving grace.”
Rivas said cops should engage in community-led conversations before taking their oaths as well as receive equity training.
Not committing to doing so would indicate bias and a lack of commitment to serving a diverse community, he said.
Any policy changes would require buy-in from the union representing city cops.
Moderator Jason Benitez asked Schenectady PBA representatives last week if they would present a barrier to any changes.
Vice President Tim Rizzo said he couldn’t speak to the entirety of discussions that unfolded on the call, but said “defunding” operations would directly contradict the requests made by panelists to boost the department’s mental health resources.
Clifford said the union’s executive board has been “very forthcoming” when working with the department on the reforms they’ve already instituted, including banning knee-to-neck holds, as well as the years-long accreditation process and drafting policies governing the use of body-worn cameras, among other programs.
“I think that the dialogue that says that they’re being blockers in reforms isn’t correct,” Clifford said. “We have to respect their role, and they have worked with us very well over the past four years that I’ve been the chief, and I think it’s fair to say the past few previous administrations also.”
ACTIVISTS: BROADER CHANGE NEEDED
The meetings unfolded following a summer of demonstrations against racism and police brutality that at times paralyzed portions of the city, including an event in July that effectively shut down City Hall.
Activists All of Us, who participated in the first panel discussion and had a member serve on the 66-member steering committee that guided the effort, have been dismissive of the reform process, contending much of the feedback being generated is redundant because people have been sounding the alarm on these issues for years only to be met with resistance to change.
“Not adequate, tone deaf and in some ways, harmful,” said co-founder Jamaica Miles.
Activists spent months gathering community feedback from across the Capital Region and codified that insight into a list of 13 demands for reform which they presented to the city Police Department, county Sheriff’s Office and county District Attorney’s Office.
Automatic termination of officers who disengage body-worn cameras and engage in racist behavior, as well as scrapping ticket-writing incentive programs and no-knock warrants.
All of Us believe their demands provide a roadmap for dramatic change that is needed urgently — not incrementally in a drawn-out process.
Clifford has said any reforms would come after broader community input generated as part of the state-mandated process, which was ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June.
The chief issued a formal response last month, referring to internal policies and procedures that address some of them.
Others are bound by laws and regulations beyond the department’s control, such as the federal guidelines governing how assets seized from convicted drug dealers are diverted back into the community.
“It was determined by my command staff that each demand was answered properly and not in the need of reform because it is either already covered or deemed necessary to achieve our mission,” Clifford said.
All of Us contends the city is simply putting up roadblocks to the broad change in order to perpetuate the status quo of a system they contend is racist and oppressive.
More broadly, the activists contend the entire culture of policing must be changed.
Case in point: The now-former county jail guard who allegedly beat a detainee on Monday, an attack that left the man hospitalized and temporarily on a ventilator.
“How many incidences do we need to have before we prove there’s a reason we need to have change?” Miles said on Thursday. “Nothing has changed, and we don’t need for someone to be murdered — or for someone to die — for there to be a need for change.”
Yet despite their disagreement with the approach, All of Us have acknowledged common ground on some of the reforms floated by panelists, including the need to reshape mental health calls to remove police from the equation and overhauling the Civilian Police Review Board.
They also agree with the need to build more equity and create economic opportunities in city neighborhoods, including giving more people of color jobs on large-scale construction projects, including the affordable housing projects reshaping Hamilton Hill.
“We have to open up pathways to success,” said co-founder Shawn Young.
Yet they’re largely alone in calls to “defund” the police, which would strip away allocations for things like police horses and armed vehicles, as well as shrink the overall size of the force.
Community residents are simply better equipped to care for their own neighborhoods, said Miles, who pledged All of Us will continue to be active as the city moves into the next phase of the reform process.
“But we’re not going to give you the full game plan,” Miles quipped.