NISKAYUNA — The Niskayuna Police Department arrests Black individuals at a disproportionate rate to the Black population, and use of force incidents disproportionately involve Black people, according to a new consultant’s analysis.
The report, prepared for the town as part of a police reform and reinvention initiative, found that over the last six years Black people accounted for 30 percent of all the suburban police department’s arrests, even though Black people make up only 3 percent of Niskayuna’s population.
For the department’s rare use of force incidents, 39 percent of the incidents involved Black people.
The statistics in the report are new information, compiled by national consultant CNA of Arlington, Virginia, as the town works to respond to demands on police departments across the country to come to a reckoning with systemic racism.
The factors behind the high percentage of arrests of Black individuals are complex, and understanding them will take further study, the firm found.
“It’s all very complicated and I’m glad we had CNA come in. It was enlightening to see,” said Town Supervisor Yasmine Syed, who is co-leader of the town’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.
The 81-page report is being released today (Thursday), for pubic comment through Feb. 18. A public meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11. The public can attend through a link available on the town’s Niskayuna.org website.
The Town Board hired CNA for a $25,000 study in November, as part of the town’s efforts to comply with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive order No. 203. That order requires all communities in the state with law enforcement agencies to conduct police reform studies, following national Black Lives Matter protests this past summer over the police killings of several Black people.
CNA conducted a similar analysis for the city of Albany, as part of its police reform review.
The report and its 73 recommendations will be the basis for the report due to the governor’s office by April 1, said Syed and Councilperson Denise Murphy McGraw.
“There are issues going on in town and being raised at meetings, and we really wanted to have more than just anecdotal information,” said McGraw, who spearheaded the effort to bring in an outside consultant.
The report praised the police department for a new emphasis on training since 35-year officer Frances Wall became police chief last year, and made short-term and long-term recommendations. Among them was that the town consider purchasing body-worn cameras for all its officers. Such cameras can document interactions with the public.
Syed and McGraw both said they see obtaining body cameras as a priority, and said CNA found a source of possible grant funding.
“Body cameras are something we have been discussing, but we are always challenged by funding and budget,” Syed said.
Black people make up 30 percent of the 1,378 arrests made between January 2015 and November 2020, a finding CNA called “a striking difference.” “It is possible that bias in policy, practice, or individual behavior plays a role in explaining this disparity,” it concluded.
The report noted, however, that the explanations for racial disparities will be complicated. For instance, it said Black people are more likely than white people to be involved in violent crimes or domestic violence, the kinds of cases in which officers have little discretion to not make an arrest. While Niskayuna has a low percentage of Black residents, it borders Schenectady, which has a much higher percentage of minority residents; race aside, police arrest more city residents than they do Niskayuna residents.
The report found that use of force incidents are relatively rare — just 39 incidents in the last six years — but that Black people were involved in 39 percent of them, another “striking disparity.”
Most commonly, use of force in Niskayuna has involved the use of physical restraint, followed by brandishing of firearms and use of pepper spray. The report found the department’s policy on use of force is both clear and detailed, and emphasizes sanctity of life and de-escalation over use of force.
But the policy currently allows the use of controversial chokeholds — though only when deadly force is justified. The consultant recommended the chokehold policy be reviewed, and the technique possibly prohibited.
Regarding complaints from the public, from 2018 to 2020, town police took in six community member complaints. Three were from white individuals and three were from Black individuals. Of the six, one was dismissed as against another entity, not the police; three were found to be unfounded/uncorroborated; and two resulted in re-training and mentoring for the involved officer. Both of those complaints involved the same officer, and pertained to dismissive and rude behavior.
The report recommended that use of force reports, which are now kept on paper, should be kept electronically, and it recommended some changes to the complaint and officer discipline policies to make people more comfortable making a complaint and to ensure consistency in disciplinary actions.
Syed and McGraw praised the town police department for opening its records to the outside consultant for analysis, and being open to possible change.
The consultants interviewed a number of people in the community, and said it appears that they have trust in the Niskayuna Police Department, even though many have concerns about race and policing issues at the national level.
“It is crucial that Town of Niskayuna officials and NPD work in a positive, collaborative environment to institute change, build trust, increase transparency, and sustain the changes that are made,” the CNA report concluded.
Syed said the town is on track to give final approval to the reform plan at its March Town Board meeting, and it will be submitted prior to the state’s April 1 deadline. Assuming the state accepts it, CNA estimates it will take 12 to 18 months to follow through on the recommendations.