Schenectady police reform plan emphasizes mental health responses; PD acknowledges need for ‘harm reduction’

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford

SCHENECTADY — The draft reform plan for the Schenectady Police Department calls for more officers to be trained in how to deal with mental health issues, homelessness and community issues.

In 2020, the Schenectady Police Department responded to 18,257 calls that were classified as “mental health” calls. Such calls have played a role nationwide in controversial police-involved deaths, including last year’s death of Daniel Prude in Rochester.

“We are proposing that we significantly increase the number of officers who are trained to do this,” Police Chief Eric Clifford said.

The city’s draft state-mandated police reform plan includes that training and 19 other recommendations, which are being discussed at a series of meetings this week of the steering committee of community leaders helping develop the plan. The steering committee will complete its review at a meeting Friday afternoon, with the full plan to be released to the public Saturday morning.

The City Council has a public hearing set for 5:30 p.m. Monday, to be held virtually due to pandemic restrictions. Tentatively, the council is scheduled to make any modifications and act on the plan March 22 so it can be submitted to the state by the April 1 deadline.

Police agencies across the state are mandated to consider their community relationships and need for reform as part of an executive order Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued last June. The order came after the police death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which prompted Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country.

Schenectady had its own police/community issues last year, with local protests and an outcry after a cellphone video showed a Schenectady officer using his body weight on a man’s head area to restrain him as he resisted arrest in July. That officer was disciplined afterward for not following police procedure.

Clifford, who at one demonstration last summer took a knee to acknowledge the legitimacy of community concerns about police insensitivity toward minority communities, told the steering committee that chokeholds have been banned through changes to the department use of force policy, as has use of an officer’s body weight as restraint to the head or neck “unless no other option is available.”

Training officers in how to handle mental health calls is seen as integral to a larger effort to “reduce harm” in interactions between police and the public.

Clifford said “community engagement officers” would be trained in addressing mental health and homelessness issues more than other officers, and they would wear polo shirts or other clothing that is less intimidating to the public than a traditional police uniform.

The chief acknowledged it is better when medical health professionals can respond to mental health calls, but argued that that isn’t always possible, and police are generally the first on the scene. “This falls to the police for the reason that we are 24/7, 365, and we have to have someone on our staff who is trained to deal with [those calls],” Clifford said.

Some committee members, including Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, said they would support more funding going to providing professional mental health services, but Clifford insisted it shouldn’t be at the expense of the police budget, as those who support “defund the police” suggest. He said nine officer positions were already cut last year due to the city’s financial plight.

“The police just accepted the responsibility for handling these things, but without getting funded for it,” he said.

Among the other draft recommendations:

— Tracking of officer use of force incidents should be expanded to keep track of more metrics, and use of force reports should be shifted from paper files to an online data base.

— Re-emphasize de-escalation as a priority in all officer training, and limit the police response in situations in which one party in a dispute may be trying to intimidate the other by calling police.

— Work harder to diversify the department, re-imagine the hiring process, institute anti-racism training for officers, ask civil service officials to consider whether changes can be made in civil service testing to help diversification efforts.

— Encourage officers to put new emphasis on their own wellness, including being willing to seek help for themselves when appropriate.

— Create a police substation in the neighborhoods most affected by policing, and encourage more officers to walk a beat in those neighborhoods.

— Have regular community conversations involving officers and police command staff. Train community engagement officers, with training in overcoming cultural and language barriers.

— Create a more-user friendly online system for reporting complaints against officers, and develop a database that lets the public and the police themselves determine whether racial bias appears to be a factor in police activity.

— Support the work of the Civilian Police Review Board, which may gain enhanced investigative powers under a separate plan currently under consideration by the City Council.

The steering committee worked its way through some of the recommendations Wednesday and Thursday, and is expected to complete the review at a meeting Friday afternoon.

Mayor Gary McCarthy, who co-chairs the steering committee along with Clifford, said he doesn’t expect the steering committee to agree on all the changes, and he also expects the City Council may make some changes during its review.

“For this to work, it’s got to be a dynamic process going forward,” McCarthy said.

One steering committee member, the Rev. Phillip Grigsby, said the committee wasn’t given enough time to discuss the recommendations, which members saw for the first time on Monday. “Some of them require more thought and work than the timeline that we have,” he said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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