SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Saratoga Springs Police Department needs to revise its use-of-force policy to minimize harm, and adopt policies tailored to dealing specifically with mental health calls, as well as diversify the department’s personnel, according to draft police reform recommendations.
A citizen-led Police Reform Task Force that has been meeting since last August has adopted 42 recommendations and sent them to the City Council for possible action prior to an April 1 deadline.
The task force was formed in response to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 issued last June, which mandated that each municipality with a law enforcement agency must consider its community relations and need for any reform, and submit a plan to the state by April 1, or risk of losing state funding. Communities across the state are also rushing to meet the deadline.
Task force members said social justice was the underlying goal of all the recommendations.
“The Task Force has confronted this challenge of rethinking and reinventing public safety whenever possible by embracing a commitment to social justice, which foregrounds the pursuit of fundamental human rights, as well as racial, social and economic equity, transparency and accountability,” according to the report’s introduction. “Doing so means prioritizing concern for every member of the Saratoga community, including individuals who are most vulnerable and often marginalized, such as immigrants, people of color, LGTBQ+ individuals, and young people.”
A dozen of the recommendations focus on use-of-force policy or use of control devices like Tasers. Those recommendations include an emphasis on de-escalating a situation as opposed to using force, alternatives to use of force, and restricting use of force until all other alternatives have been exhausted. The city should also keep a use-off-force database, seek early intervention for officers who repeatedly use force, and conduct independent reviews of use of force and use of “energy and control devices” like a Taser.
The task force also recommended revising the form used for bringing a civilian complaint against an officer, and establishing a Civilian Review Board that could receive and process grievances against police conduct. Similar boards are in place in Schenectady and Albany, though some people have questioned their effectiveness.
The city’s downtown was the scene of several racial justice protests last summer and fall that included marches that shut down major streets. Social justice advocates have criticized the police handling of a July 30 protest in which police deployed pepper balls and made arrests after protesters refused to obey orders to leave the street due to darkness. Task force members said police haven’t acknowledged any fault in that response.
The task force said some officers should get training in restorative justice concepts, with the goal that they train others. “While not necessarily useful in everyday interactions, the mindset and overriding principles of finding common ground, repairing harm, accessibility, neutrality and respect will go a long way to fostering trust between officers and the public,” the recommendations state.
The task force also called for implementation of “integrated communications, assessment and tactics training” (ICAT) — a way of dealing with the non-criminal calls police often respond to, such as when people are having a mental health or behavioral crisis. Across the county, it has often been those sorts of calls that end in violence.
“In almost every situation where a person is behaving erratically (often because of mental illness or a behavioral crisis), it is a patrol officer — a ‘beat’ cop — who is the first to respond,” the recommendations state. “ICAT provides these officers with the skills and options needed to safely and effectively manage these encounters, especially in the first few minutes after officers arrive. In many instances, the goal is for the first responding officers to buy enough time so that additional, specialized resources can get to the scene to support a safe and peaceful resolution.”
Once it receives the recommendations, the City Council will be doing its own review of the findings, and is not obligated to accept all the recommendations. Implementation is up to city officials. With the council scheduled to meet once more this month — March 16 — City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis said is expects a special City Council meeting will be needed to discuss and adopt the plan, so it can be submitted prior to the state deadline.