SCHENECTADY — After months of discussion, the City Council adopted the city’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative plan in a 4-1 vote Monday.
The council’s majority said input from a steering committee was well-represented in the 24-item plan, and it addressed the law’s objective of addressing tensions and lack of trust between communities and law enforcement.
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.
Despite voting in favor of the plan during last week’s council Public Safety Committee meeting, Councilwoman Marion Porterfield was the lone dissenter.
Porterfield said the city plan met the letter of the law, but not its spirit.
The only black person on the council, Porterfield reiterated concerns she presented last week about the department’s use of force, particularly continued allowance for an officer to put a knee or body weight on someone’s head if there’s no other remedy available to that officer. Neck holds remain illegal.
Chief Eric Clifford told the Public Safety Committee last week that the department allows an officer to target a suspect’s head in limited cases, such as when the officer and suspect are grappling on the ground or when the suspect is larger than the officer.
In last year’s aftermath of an internal review of a struggle between Patrolman Brian Pommer and city resident Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud, Porterfield said she understood that the head and neck would be off limits during physical combat.
Porterfield suggested that the head should remain off limits because if its proximity to the neck.
More broadly, Porterfield said policing in communities of color such as Schenectady looked different from policing in neighboring Niskayuna. The plan should reflect those differences, she suggested.
“I understand that we all bring who we are to the table,” Porterfield said. “I say all the time, how you see it depends on where you sit.
“So it’s very clear that I bring my blackness and years of witnessing and enduring systemic racism, including in this city, to this table,” she continued. “So yes, I see that things are different for me than my colleagues who bring their whiteness to the table. And maybe, and definitely, lack of experience living in a black community and being profiled and over-policed and subject to implicit and explicit bias.”
Porterfield said she changed her mind about approving the plan after giving it a more thorough review last weekend. She said she noticed language about “pain compliance,” meaning officers can use pain to get control of a suspect.
“I did not think that’s what we wanted,” she said. “I did not think that’s where we were going.”
But Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas said the process begun last summer was all-encompassing and generated good feedback and a lot of good information.
“I want to stress that this is the beginning — the mayor and the chief have both said this — this is not the end of what is going to be the police reform,” she said. “I believe that there will be more changes coming. I do believe that we need to make sure that our Police Department is safe and that they have the ability to do their job safely.
“I think that this is a good document; I think the governor will be pleased with it, and I am in full support of it,” she said.
Councilwoman Carmel Patrick agreed, saying the process was comprehensive in terms of various voices that had input into the process.
Patrick said that it was clear to her that an officer putting his knee or body weight on a person’s neck or head would not be tolerated by the department, and that the council had asked the chief to continue to address it and and return with more specific language in the proposal.
“I am satisfied that this document itself does represent the work that the steering committee has done since August, and I feel fine about voting yes for the April 1 deadline,” Patrick said.
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,” 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 Pommel pinning Gaindarpersaud to the ground with his body weight on the suspect’s head. A cellphone recorded the arrest.