SCHENECTADY — Reforms are working their way through the city Police Department following a summer of discontent that morphed into a series of community meetings this fall.
Police recruits are already required to undergo psychological exams and polygraph tests.
Now questioning by a panel of community residents has been added to the vetting process.
The first applicant, an officer seeking a lateral transfer from a different police department, appeared last week before the six-member panel, which is tasked with civilian police oversight.
The interview is designed to determine if candidates will be a good fit for policing diverse neighborhoods, gauging their mindset and expectations.
And the panel’s recommendations come with real teeth, said city Police Chief Eric Clifford.
“This has the ability to take a candidate out of contention for the job,” Clifford said.
Community activist William Rivas pitched the concept and serves on the panel alongside Carl Williams, a member of the Schenectady NAACP and the Civilian Police Review Board, and Jamel Mohammed, who runs the city police’s community outreach program.
“This was a real conversation we had with this individual,” Rivas said, who called the pilot project “unprecedented.”
Williams hoped the panel will ultimately spur sustained community involvement as members cycle through the body.
“This is an opportunity for community members collectively to get involved,” he said.
Clifford declined to identify the other three members, citing a lack of permission to disclose their identities.
Yet each have been engaged in this summer’s sweeping discussions on police brutality and systemic racism.
Clifford envisions expanding the panel within the next several months if a federal aid package for state and local governments materializes, a measure that would allow the department to fill nine openings on the 150-member force — creating more interviews in the process.
While the panel was approved by city police command staff and questions are shared with police beforehand, the members are independent, Clifford said, and city police won’t interfere with their line of questioning unless they kick up liability issues.
“This is not just a rubber stamp,” Clifford. Said. “They are involved, their opinion matters.”
Officials are working to codify the process in a formal structure.
“We’re currently working on a policy that will drive this process,” Clifford said.
Clifford offered the update on Wednesday at the biweekly meeting of the steering committee guiding the state-mandated police reform process.
With the public comment period wrapped up, analysts with the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety are now shaping feedback into concrete policy proposals.
The City Council must ratify any reforms by April 1 at the risk of losing state funding.
Despite the wrap-up of formal community panel discussions, dialogue is ongoing and city police are continuing to meet with neighborhood associations and clergy groups.
“Our intentions are to participate in more of those meetings moving forward,” Clifford said.
Imam Genghis Khan said systemic reform can be tricky, especially when it comes to breaking down “silos” of information that tend to exist in city government.
Buy-in from Schenectady PBA is a crucial part of fostering change, he said.
“It’s something we need to hear a little more about,” Khan said. “What is the extent to which the police union can be supportive or pro-active in these activities?”
The Civilian Police Review Board is also engaged in internal discussion for how to reform the panel to be more responsive and to cast a wider net when it comes to soliciting complaints on police conduct.
The rollout of a new form, which will be displayed on the city website, is imminent.
The document is clearer and more streamlined than the current version, said chairman Richard Shave, which will help those who speak English as a second language.
The panel also aims on working with neighborhood organizations and community leaders to promote the panel and help people who require assistance in filing complaints. The new form is just one upcoming change.
Members went through their bylaws line-by-line earlier this month at a special City Council Public Safety Committee meeting,
Among the ideas pitched were more training, mandatory term limits and increased access to files that have been redacted.
Yet there’s still no consensus on how much investigatory power should be granted to the nine-person panel whose members are appointed by community organizations and the Mayor’s Office.
“The issue of us investigating is a big issue,” said Shave, who acknowledged disagreements exist within the board.
Shave also said the selection process can lead to prolonged vacancies, which was the case in recent years when numerous positions remained open. He said the City Council should be given the authority to appoint members.
“This would not take away from groups who are interested and would make it easier,” Shave said.
Williams acknowledged more discussions are needed before the panel finalizes any reforms.
“[There’s a] lack of defined understanding of how we operate and how citizens wish for us to operate,” he said.
Any changes ultimately must be approved by City Council, who are also required to sign off on a separate suite of reforms generated by the state-mandated reform process.
“This is not to conclude anything tonight, but just to get input,” said city Councilwoman Marion Porterfield.