SCHENECTADY — The council’s Public Safety Committee spent two hours presenting changes to the city’s 24-point police reform plan before giving it the OK Thursday night.
Cities and towns with police departments face the governor’s April 1 deadline to submit a police reform plan to the state or risk future state funding.
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.
In its second meeting this week on the topic, much discussion centered on Councilwoman Marion Porterfield’s objection to a proposed policy departing from the term “use of force,” and the leeway an officer continues to have in applying force to a suspect’s head. However, she failed to gain the support of her colleagues.
Porterfield said she didn’t agree with “response to resistance” taking the place of use of force, because the proposed terminology put the onus on the person being detained or questioned. Meanwhile, use of force is a universal term, Porterfield noted.
Porterfield said “resistance” is open to interpretation. The person could simply be “verbal to the police,” she said.
Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas disagreed, saying she prefers response to resistance because if a suspect is told to stop, but refuses, an officer might not necessarily use physical force.
Police Chief Eric S. Clifford said the department adopted the language from Troy police. He said the term represented what officers were truly doing in the field when responding to people from which they’re seeking compliance.
Force can come in many forms, from verbal commands, to detaining someone, he said.
The change spoke to the department’s desire to assume a mindset of guardian, rather than warrior, the chief said.
Porterfield, who is black, also called for the proposed reform plan to outright prohibit an officer from applying force with their knee or body weight to a person’s head, even if that officer is in the heat of a struggle.
The plan calls for allowing an officer to use that level of force if no other option is available to him or her.
Clifford, noting that no two situations were the same, made it clear that officers are never to obstruct anyone’s airway for breathing, or put their knee or body weight to someone’s neck.
But he said it is a training technique to hold a person’s head to control their body, if no other option is available.
It allows the officer who’s in danger to retain their weapon and call for help, he said.
An officer only has two arms, Clifford said, and if the officer is on the ground fighting with someone, he or she often has to use grappling moves to hang onto their weapon and call for help.
“It’s never good to restrict officers from doing anything if it jeopardizes their safety,” Clifford said, giving the example of an officer struggling with a larger person.
Porterfield said she wasn’t proposing that an officer be put in harm’s way.
Instead, she said, she wanted to make sure people are safe.
“We’re talking about somebody’s head,” she said. “That’s like a really important part of your body.”
The chief said he had no problem editing that particular issue, but he indicated he was locked in on protecting officers.
“The only reason it’s in our policy is because of a reaction to what happened this summer,” he said. “It was a reaction to one incident that forced us to put this in here.
“When you look at the entire policy in totality, it’s written the officer has to be reasonable in what they’re doing,” he continued.
Changes that were agreed upon included Council President John Mootooveren’s suggestion to reduce the composition of the steering committee, and that it continue to meet as needed.
Councilman John Polimeni said the plan should note that a divide exists between members of the community and the police, and both factions needed to work to repair it.
“In order for a relationship to be repaired, it takes two people and we’ve largely, if not solely, put that squarely on the Police Department,” he said.
Carmel Patrick made no written recommendations, stating her questions were answered during the previous session.
“I feel that the process was really comprehensive. I appreciated all the work that everyone did over the last several months,” with focus groups of various constituent groups in the community, she said.