SCHENECTADY – Following last week’s public hearing during which the city’s 24 proposed items toward police reform were criticized as not going far enough, Mayor Gary R. McCarthy told the council’s Public Safety Committee Monday that he didn’t view the litany of items as a “be all, end all.”
Instead, the mayor said, this is a dynamic process driven by the governor’s April 1 deadline for cities and towns with police departments to submit a police reform plan to the state or risk future state funding.
But instead of voting on the mayor’s request for approval of the plan, the council continued the meeting to Thursday.
The city’s recommendations from the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative 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.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo acted in response to Black Lives Matters protests over the police-involved deaths of unarmed 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 on that person’s head.
McCarthy, who co-chaired the collaborative police reform effort, conceded that the process probably didn’t spend enough time considering changes to the city’s commissioner form a discipline, which the mayor suggested would be much more results-oriented and transparent than anything that’s been done in the past.
McCarthy appointed Eugene P. Devine as Public Safety Commissioner in December. Devine had been a judge on the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court.
Although there’s a desire to add civilians to the disciplinary process, McCarthy said, the council has to be cognizant of the commissioner’s role, and it needed to establish how the city could build on what he said was a record of success.
“A lot of time and effort went in this” plan, McCarthy said. “I don’t look at this proposal as kind of the be all, end all, and ask the council to also consider that we’re under a time deadline imposed on us by the governor and his executive order to implement these recommendations.”
Police Chief Eric S. Clifford said he was proud of the collaborative’s word on the plan. The chief noted that the process called for a comprehensive review of current deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, and to develop a community engaged plan that would address racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.
Their job wasn’t necessarily to study whether those things were happening, which Clifford said could be a separate discussion and study.
Clifford said police are committed to transparency, and its first venture toward that was to voluntarily seek and obtain a grant for body cameras three years ago. Schenectady was one of the first department’s in the area to do so, he said.
Police supervisors also proactively conduct quality control reviews of officer’s work, the chief said. At random, supervisors pull and review incident calls to write an assessment and forward recommendations toward improvement to that officer.
Specific complaints, meanwhile, go to the department’s office of professional standards, which involves a thorough investigation and review, the chief said.
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield sought more diversity among the command staff during the peer review process. If an officer is accused of racial discrimination, she said, the review should include someone who may see the incident differently.
“There’s no two ways about it,” Porterfield said. “We’ve had conversations throughout this that policing looks different in communities of color.
Councilwoman Carmel Patrick said the concept of mental health professionals who work in the Police Department to respond to certain calls was a common refrain during the process.
Clifford said everyone agreed that mental health professionals are best equipped to deliver that level of service, but added that the plan should consider liability the city would face if a mental health professional got injured in such a situation, or if the person that they’re serving injures somebody else. He said Schenectady officers are well-trained in dealing with people with mental health disorders.
“Everybody likes to point out the one or two situations where there’s a failure, but we don’t talk about the how many situations that we deal with every single day where officers find successes in dealing with people with mental health issues, where we get them the help that they need,” he said.
Council President John Mootooveren said he wanted the steering committee of clergy and neighborhood leaders, and led by Clifford and McCarthy, to remain active.
It would be beneficial, Mootooveren suggested, to maintain the committee and keep the community engaged as the plan progresses and to discuss its implementation in the future.