SARATOGA SPRINGS — The City Council has set a review schedule for a proposed police reform plan that would have the council deliberate next week and take a vote at a special meeting on March 31 — the night before the statewide deadline for acting on the reform initiatives.
A draft resolution discussed at this week’s City Council meeting would largely accept the recommendations of a citizen police reform committee, though noting that some initiatives would be subject to city budget appropriations. They also noted the potential obstacles to complying with one key recommendation — establishing a police civilian review board to review complaints and internal disciplinary actions within the Saratoga Springs Police Department.
“Ultimately, any implementation of a civilian review board would potentially involve re-negotiating union contracts, amendments to the City Charter and even litigation,” the draft resolution states, recommending further study of the idea, while stating that “merit may exist for such a program.”
Any change to the City Charter would require voter approval. A series of efforts to change the charter — some involving a full government restructuring, others involving relatively small modernizations — have been voted down in recent years.
“This is going to take a little time, and maybe also require a [public] referendum,” said Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan.
Cities including Schenectady and Albany have civilian police review boards, though the rules governing them and their effectiveness varies. Both cities are having discussions about strengthening their powers as part of their police reform reviews.
The City Council set a special meeting for Tuesday, March 23, to be devoted to discussion of the recommendations from the Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force and its recommendations. Further discussion could then take place at the March 31 meeting before a vote.
City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis said the council resolution addressing the recommendations could be changed at any time due to discussions. City officials also acknowledged sending in the report won’t be the end of the city’s response.
“Police reform has to go on after April 1,” said Mayor Meg Kelly. “We have to have a plan going forward, and that’s what we’re doing with this resolution.”
Saratoga Springs, like every community in the state that has its own law enforcement agency, is under an order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to formally study whether its agency needs to make changes due to the nation’s history of systemic racism, and submit a plan by April 1.
Cuomo’s order was issued in response to Black Lives Matter protests in response to police-involved deaths of unarmed Black civilians across the country. A Capital Region group called All of Us held several protests in Saratoga Springs, including a protest last July 30 that resulted in use of pepper balls and arrests after protesters refused orders to stop blocking streets. Some critics characterized those tactics as “militarized.”
In response, the proposed resolution would direct the police chief to review policies regarding response to First Amendment assemblies and instances when outside police agencies are called for assistance. (The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department, state police and state park police were part of the July 30 response.)
The citizen-led task force, which began meeting in August and issued its recommendations in early March, said the Police Department needs to revise its use-of-force policy to minimize harm, adopt policies tailored to dealing specifically with mental health calls, diversify the department’s personnel, and modify internal disciplinary review procedures. The council resolution supports those recommendations, noting some are already underway, though more may need to be done. It acknowledges “the prevalence of racism which has existed throughout the history of the United States.”