Hearing speakers say Schenectady police reform plan falls short

All of Us leader Mikayla Foster speaks on the steps of City Hall during a press conference as they request changes to be made in city hall meetings for the voices to be heard during public hearings Monday
All of Us leader Mikayla Foster speaks on the steps of City Hall during a press conference as they request changes to be made in city hall meetings for the voices to be heard during public hearings Monday

SCHENECTADY — The city’s draft police reform plan fails to go far enough to reforming the police, the majority of more than a dozen people who spoke at a City Council public hearing on the plan said Monday night.

Some speakers were members of All of Us, a community group that continues to push for consideration of 13 demands for reform it made last summer, in the middle of last summer’s nationwide Black Lives Matter movement against police-involved deaths of unarmed Black people and police brutality. Other speakers were members of the local clergy.

The draft report released last Friday “is making a joke out of this process,” said community activist Jamaica Miles, one of the founders of All of Us, who spoke passionately during the hearing, which lasted more than an hour.

Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the draft plan doesn’t go far enough. “We would remind you that Executive Order 203 is not just police reform, but re-invention,” she told the council.

Just hours before the City Council’s virtual public hearing Monday, clergy and community groups took to the steps of City Hall to denounce the process as less than inclusive — charges some of the same speakers repeated at the hearing.

“The City of Schenectady is not living up to the objectives of working collectively to create changes in policing, changes to address racial disparities and end police brutality,” Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, Schenectady NAACP, and All of Us said in a statement.

The hearing was held as the city faces an April 1 deadline to submit a police reform and re-invention plan to the state, under an executive order Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued last June, following the police death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other incidents around the country.

Late Friday, the city released 24 recommendations from its Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative shortly after the collaborative — a collection of police, city-elected, faith and community leaders — completed months of work on the plan.

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” and establishing a police substation in the heavily policed neighborhoods, the ones that often have large minority populations.

The 13 demands, however, went much farther, calling for automatic firing of officers for racist conduct on or off duty, a ban on no-knock warrants and giving the Police Civilian Review Board subpoena power to conduct independent investigations of police misconduct complaints.

“That is the voice of the community,” said one speaker.

Miles criticized council members for not making the public aware that the recommendations were posted on the city’s website late Friday. Those without internet access, Miles said, didn’t have a chance to review them.

Miles also rebuked Mayor Gary R. McCarthy for not telling people they would have to sign up to get an account with the city prior to speaking during the hearing. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, a would-be speaker could sign up the day of a particular meeting, she said. “Our mayor, our city, our chief of police continue to silence and ignore all people, especially those that don’t have access and opportunity on a good day,” Miles said.

Schenectady NAACP chapter president, the Rev. Nicolle D. Harris, agreed that it was the groups’ duty to seek justice and defend the oppressed from what she said were inadequate policing practices.

With police reform a national issue worthy of local attention, Harris said it was honorable and proper to honor the memory of Andrew Kearse, who died in the custody of the Schenectady Police Department in 2017. Kearse, according to an autopsy, succumbed to heart failure after being apprehended by Schenectady police officers in May 2017. A police officer was the subject of the grand jury investigation because he drove Kearse to the police station after the arrest. A grand jury declined to file charges against the officer.

Mikayla Foster, an activist with All of Us and a member of the reform collaborative’s steering committee, suggested the mayor and police held too much influence in the lead up to the reform plan. She noted that McCarthy and Police Chief Eric Clifford chaired the collaborative, and said there was no effort to reach consensus or take votes among the collaborative members.

“The process determined by the chief of police and the mayor states that they are the only people with power and the privilege to determine our agendas, set forth recommendations and decide what is discussed and at what length we discuss it. We take no votes. If we do not reach a consensus, the chief decides for himself,” Foster said.

Cuomo has ordered 500 jurisdictions with police departments or law enforcement agencies in New York to adopt a police reform plan by April 1 to be eligible for future state funding.

Shawn Young, co-founder of All of Us, called it an arbitrary deadline.

“This fight will continue on,” Young said. “And I’m still going to be here, and I hope you all continue to come out and show up and fight. This electoral season, there’s a lot of opportunity to get the change that we all deserve. And I would tell you that if we do not do it, the cost is life… Potentially, someone could lose their life behind a policy that we do not enact in this very community.”

Rev. Dustin Wright, pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, acknowledged that there were some positive steps that came out of the task force. However, he said he shared the views of all the other speakers. Wright said work remained toward accounting for the opinions of the most disproportionately affected communities.

Under council rules, members did not respond to comments during the public hearing.

The council is expected to hold follow-up discussion at its committee meetings next Monday, March 15, and would need to act on the draft plan with any changes at its March 22 meeting to meet the governor’s deadline.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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