SARATOGA COUNTY — Saratoga County should re-examine whether sheriff’s deputies should have body-worn cameras, incorporate mental health resources into daily functions, increase diversity training and consider establishing a formal internal process for reviewing complaints, according to a draft police reform plan.
And if it does need to use its militaristic Mine Resistant Assault Protective vehicle — as it did as part of the police response to a large demonstration last July 30 in Saratoga Springs — it should do so “in a manner that reduces the possibility of instilling fear or apprehension on the part of citizens engaging in legitimate public assembly and speech.”
Those are among the findings of Saratoga County’s Executive Order 203 Compliance Group, which has been studying the Sheriff’s Department and the need for any changes in how it polices the county.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s order, issued following fatal encounters across the country between police and unarmed Black citizens, requires all municipalities with police agencies to consider reform and reinvention plans. Those plans are due to the state by April 1, so communities across the region are going through the same process.
The county Board of Supervisors this week accepted the draft report with 10 recommendations for consideration, and released it for public comment to be received through Friday, March 5. Supervisors plan to adopt a reform plan at their March 16 board meeting.
The compliance group was chaired by Dr. Michael Prezioso, the county’s mental health commissioner, and included Undersheriff Richard Castle, Malta Supervisor Darren O’Connor, Mechanicville Supervisor Thomas Richardson, District Attorney Karen Heggen, Public Defender Andrew Blumenberg, and attorney Opal Hinds, the only person of color in the group.
The Sheriff’s Department, like sheriff’s departments across the state, does nearly all its patrol and enforcement activities in rural areas, suburbs and small villages. Cities like Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville and larger villages like Ballston Spa have their own police departments.
The department makes about 1,500 arrests per year. The report found that over the last four-year period, 25 civilian complaints were received and 11 of them were sustained. One complaint alleged excessive force, and one complaint alleged bias; neither of those allegations were sustained.
The report recommends that the Sheriff’s Department again explore development of a body-worn camera and in-car video program. The Board of Supervisors looked into body cameras in 2015, but the study ultimately went nowhere, with the six-figure cost of storing digital footage among the concerns.
The compliance group said body cameras would require decisions beyond the scope of what it was studying, but said the Board of Supervisors should again consider it. “The development of such a program should include consideration of transparency benefits, privacy concerns, costs, need for additional staffing and overall impact on the Sheriff’s Office as well as other county departments,” its report said.
— Encourage the adoption of training and programs related to diversity and cultural education, and elimination of bias.
— Creating a professional standards position or group within the Sheriff’s Department or other system for discipline reviews, to replace what is now an ad-hoc system for investigating when complaints are received about deputies.
— Create a central list of mental health, domestic violence response and other resources for the public to use instead of calling law enforcement, and encourage the use of mental health resources within the department on a daily basis, to benefit both the community and those who work in law enforcement.
— Deputies should collect more information on the race and ethnicity of those they interact with. Right now, that information is only collected on those who are arrested.
— The office should continue to take measures to comply with the New York State Law Enforcement Accreditation Program and state Municipal Police Training Council. The Sheriff’s Department is already certified by both, but the certifications are subject to periodic review.
— The group said an advisory committee to seek public input and community involvement in sheriff’s policies and procedures should continue beyond April 1.
The use of a military-style MRAP vehicle during the July 30 Black Lives Matter/All of Us protest in Saratoga Springs drew special attention during public comments at compliance group meetings, the report noted. The large demonstration blocked Broadway at Congress Street. City police, who had called the Sheriff’s Department for backup, ultimately decided to disperse demonstrators with pepper balls, then made three arrests. Some participants called the presence of the MRAP vehicle intimidating.
“While the Compliance Group conducted no structured fact-finding hearing regarding the July 30th event, it did not identify any specific instance of misconduct on the part of any Sheriff’s Department employee,” the report said. “Nevertheless, many comments were made concerning the use of the MRAP and the ‘militarization’ of police departments in general.”
The report is available for review on the saratogacountyny.org website under the Executive Order 203 Compliance Group tab. People can comment to [email protected] or clerk to Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, 40 McMaster St., Ballston Spa, NY 12020.