SCHENECTADY — Late Friday afternoon, barely 72 hours before the Schenectady City Council plans a public hearing on the draft state-mandated police reform plan, the document is finalized and available to the public.
The city released the 24 recommendations from the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative shortly after the collaborative — a collection of police, city-elected, faith and community leaders brought together to write the plan — wrapped up a marathon three days of reviewing the recommendations developed from within the Police Department, with community input.
The public hearing, which will be held virtually, will take place at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The council is expected to discuss the plan and vote on whether to adopt it at a future meeting.
The recommendations include: having officers who are specially trained for community engagement and responding to mental health calls; seeking to diversify the makeup of the Police Department; and training in how to de-escalate the tense situations that have led to police violence in the past. It also recommended more “community policing” — though what that means in practice may be disputed — and establishing a police substation in the heavily policed neighborhoods, the ones that often have large minority populations.
Broadly, the recommendations are similar to those coming from law enforcement agencies across the state, all under obligation to study community relations and the need for reforms to address systemic racism under an executive order issued last June by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The plan must be submitted to the state by April 1.
Cuomo acted in response to Black Lives Matters protests over the police-involved deaths of armed Black people. The city saw protests by the local group All of Us, as well as controversy last summer of a cellphone-recorded arrest in which a Schenectady officer pinned a suspect to the ground with his body weight.
Mayor Gary McCarthy, who co-chaired the collaborative, said the police reform discussion took place successfully despite the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and said it acknowledged the need for change based on discussions with the community and the recommendations of an outside consultant, the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety in Albany.
The collaborative began meeting last fall, and held a series of meetings that were virtual due to the pandemic, but available to the public on video.
“I am proud of how our community has come together during these extraordinarily challenging times,” McCarthy said. “This report offers a window into how our police department and local service agencies can build confidence, strengthen trust and legitimacy, and better serve our city’s diverse community.”
The mayor acknowledged the conversations showed the change is needed.
“These conversations illustrated that as a city we need to improve our ability to respond to citizens requests for services,” McCarthy said in a letter introducing the report. “Maintaining public safety is imperative, however there are many situations that at times call for a response that would be better handled by an agency other than the police department. Whether an individual is in a health crisis or needs to file a report, we encourage our community members to make the right call so we can respond appropriately.”
Retired state Supreme Court Judge Eugene P. Devine, who became the city’s public safety commissioner in December, said he is pleased that the report should mean that criminal justice reform will reach the “street level.” Devine said his experience — 25 years in the county public defender’s office, as well as in private practice and 14 years as a judge — has taught him “that true criminal justice reform needs to start at the street level. This is where we can make the most impact. This is our chance!,” he wrote in a letter accompanying the draft report’s release.
Police Chief Eric Clifford, who co-chaired the collaborative with McCarthy and largely guided the discussion when draft recommendations were being reviewed this week, said the department is committed to make changes, some of which have already taken place, but will need more resources to pursue others.
“I remain committed to community conversations regarding the policing of our community,” Clifford wrote in an introduction to the report. “The foundation that has been established through conversations will provide structure to reinforce changes,” he wrote. “The recommendations will range from things the department plans to implement immediately to plans to restructure delivery of service on many levels that may take time and resources to accomplish.”
Depending on what is said at the public hearing, the collaborative members are scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss whether additional changes are needed in the recommendations. Based on the April 1 deadline, the City Council will either have to act at its March 22 meeting or hold a special meeting to discuss the report and decide whether to adopt it.
A majority of council members attended Friday’s web-based meeting of the collaborative, with none raising vehement objections to the direction in which the recommendations were going.
“I’m hopeful this isn’t the end of the process,” said Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, who has participated in most if not all collaborative meetings.
She has also been the council’s strongest advocate for giving enhanced power to the city’s Civilian Police Review Board, which already exists to review complaints brought by the public against police officers. The council is reviewing those powers as part of a separate process, and is expected to set a public hearing on proposed changes to the board during Monday’s council meeting.
Clifford said the department wants to work with and improve its relationship with the Civilian Police Review Board, which is independent of the department.