SCHENECTADY — The City Council is moving forward with proposed changes to the city’s Civilian Police Review Board that would add to its investigative powers, but still keep the names of any police officers who are the subject of a complaint confidential.
The council’s Public Safety Committee voted Monday to proceed with the proposed changes, which will require changing the city code after holding a public hearing, probably later this month.
During discussion held virtually due to pandemic restrictions on in-person gatherings, the committee agreed that the CPRB should have at least one new power — access to video and audio evidence collected from police body cameras and other technology when they were reviewing complaints. The council also agreed former felons could serve on the board, as long as their prison sentence or time on parole is at least five years into the past.
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, who has been the strongest advocate for expanding the CPRB’s role as part of police reform but met resistance to some of her proposals, has said a strengthened board could be part of the city’s response to calls for racial justice after last year’s nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, which included protests in Schenectady.
Schenectady, like communities across the state, is developing reform proposals in response to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 203 of last June, which mandates that municipalities that have their own law enforcement agencies must take community input and study whether changes are needed to address racial bias and systemic racism.
Porterfield wanted to revise the existing complaint review system, in which CPRB members don’t know the identity of either the officers or the party making the complaint. She sought to have the name of the officers disclosed, based on last year’s legislative repeal of the 50-a law that sealed police disciplinary records.
She gave up on the idea, however, after three of the five sitting council members spoke in favor of maintaining the current “double-blind” system. There are two vacancies on the seven-member council.
Those who favored a double-blind system said it protects the process from bias.
“I think it is the only way to maintain impartiality,” said Councilwoman Carmel Patrick. “It’s a piece I just feel very strongly about.” Council members John Polimeni and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas agreed.
A compromise agreement to let former felons qualify to serve on the board five years after completing their sentence was reached after other council members resisted a proposal by Porterfield to let former felons serve, as long as their crime wasn’t against an officer. That restriction would remain.
Porterfield said a former felon could potentially bring a different and valuable perspective “that isn’t necessarily negative.” Racial justice advocates around the country have also argued that restrictions on former felons disproportionately affect Black communities, keeping qualified people from serving.
Appointments to the civilian review board are made by the mayor and council, so in practice no former felon would serve on the board without official approval.
The board operates independently of the Police Department, with the goal of improving communication between the department and the community, increasing police accountability and credibility with the public, and overseeing complaint review process that is free from bias.
The study of possible changes to the CPRB has been going on separately from the state-mandated police reform study, though that study could also include recommendations for operating the board.
The City Council will hold a virtual public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 8, on the police reform plan, which is still in the process of being completed.
The city Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, which includes a number of clergy and community representatives as well as elected city officials and police officials, last week received a report from the Finn Institute of Albany, which as a research partner has looked at the operations of the Schenectady Police Department and in the report compares their operations to best-practices found around the country.
The collaborative is scheduled to discuss the findings of the Finn report in depth at a meeting Wednesday afternoon. The Finn report will be incorporated into the recommendations that the Schenectady Police Department plans to make as part of its own internal review.