SARATOGA COUNTY — The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a state-mandated police reform plan for the county Sheriff’s Department that includes a recommendation to consider having sheriff’s deputies wear body cameras, and increasing use of mental health resources into daily policing.
The plan, unchanged from what a study task force recommended in January, also includes recommendations to increase diversity training for deputies and that the sheriff consider establishing a formal internal process for reviewing citizen complaints against deputies.
The plan was approved by a vote of 21-1, with Supervisor Tara Gaston, D-Saratoga Springs, voting against it because she considers the recommendations “vague,” and made without sufficient public input. “There is nothing solid here,” she said.
The plan was developed in response to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Executive Order 203, which called for all municipalities with law enforcement agencies to consider the need for reform and reinvention last summer, following a series of fatal encounters across the country between police and unarmed Black citizens. The plans are due to be submitted to the state by April 1, at the risk of losing state aid.
The study group was chaired by Dr. Michael Prezioso, the county’s mental health commissioner, and included Undersheriff Richard Castle, Malta Supervisor Darren O’Connor, Mechanicville Supervisor Thomas Richardson, District Attorney Karen Heggen, Public Defender Andrew Blumenberg, and attorney Opal Hinds, the only person of color in the group.
The Sheriff’s Department, like sheriff’s departments across the state, does nearly all its patrol and enforcement activities in rural areas, suburbs and small villages. Cities like Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville and larger villages like Ballston Spa have their own police departments.
The only recommendation discussed at Tuesday’s meeting in Ballston Spa — held with some supervisors present and others on the telephone due to COVID-19 pandemic gathering restrictions — was the one for body cameras.
The Board of Supervisors looked into body cameras in 2015, but the study ultimately went nowhere, with the six-figure cost of storing digital footage among the concerns.
County Board Chairman Todd Kusnierz, R-Moreau, said deployment of body cameras would require negotiations with the union that represents sheriff’s deputies, but he has spoken to Sheriff Michael Zurlo and his management team about it. “We had a good conversation and I think there are more conversations to be had. I think there’s willingness,” Kusnierz said.
Supervisor Phil Barrett, R-Clifton Park, who chaired the county Public Safety Committee during the 2015 study, said the issues around body cameras are complex, but the issue is worth re-examining. “I think as a Board of Supervisors, it would behoove us to undertake that process, because it’s going to take some time,” he said.
The Waterford Police Department used body cameras for a few years, but ultimately dropped them at the point when the town faced the cost of buying replacement cameras, said Waterford Supervisor John E. Lawler. But there were larger issues, with the cost of personnel to manage the camera data and the need to quickly provide evidence footage to the District Attorney’s Office, he said. But he said there were also instances in which people being arrested calmed down when they realized their behavior was being recorded.
“My point is that this is a very complex decision. It’s an easy decision, but it’s complex,” Lawler said. “We really need to plan this from A to Z.”
Other recommendations in the approved plan:
— Encourage the adoption of training and programs related to diversity and cultural education, and elimination of bias.
— Creating a professional standards position or group within the Sheriff’s Department or other system for discipline reviews, to replace what is now an ad-hoc system for investigating when complaints are received about deputies.
— Create a central list of mental health, domestic violence response and other resources for the public to use instead of calling law enforcement, and encourage the use of mental health resources within the department on a daily basis, to benefit both the community and those who work in law enforcement.
— Deputies should collect more information on the race and ethnicity of those they interact with. Right now, that information is only collected on those who are arrested.
— The office should continue to take measures to comply with the New York State Law Enforcement Accreditation Program and state Municipal Police Training Council. The Sheriff’s Department is already certified by both, but the certifications are subject to periodic review.
— The group said an advisory committee to seek public input and community involvement in sheriff’s policies and procedures should continue beyond April 1.
The supervisors also approved a cap on the fees that third-party food delivery services can charge during the pandemic. It was adopted with only Supervisor Joe Grasso, R-Charlton, voting against it.
Saratoga joins Schenectady and Albany counties locally, as well as Westchester County and New York City, in capping the fees charged to restaurants by third-party food delivery services such as GrubHub, DoorDash and UberEats. Restaurant operators have complained of being charged high fees during the pandemic, when they have faced restrictions on indoor dining, leading to a large increase in delivery business.
All the counties have adopted local laws setting a 15% cap on what the services can charge a restaurant, as well as a 5% cap on the charge imposed when customers use the delivery service’s app to place an order, but then pick up the food themselves.