JOHNSTOWN — The City of Johnstown Police Department’s police reform plan includes new reporting requirements for police officers when they discharge their weapons and a requirement for the police to publish on the internet a monthly report listing all calls for service, cases, arrests and use of force incidents.
The city Common Council on March 15 voted unanimously to approve Johnstown’s 22-page police reform plan.
Councilman-at-large Craig Talarico paraphrased Plato’s famous quotation of Socrates’ stating that an “unexamined life is not worth living” in his introduction of the reform plan.
“An unexamined police department doesn’t deserve to exist, well in this case our police department certainly has examined itself, and done an outstanding job,” Talarico said. “Also, even without this report having been done, the Johnstown police department has always had a good history of being professional, being compassionate and generally interested in the people here, and they’ve done this, hundreds of times, deescalating serious situations.”
The reform plan seeks to fulfill the mandate of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s June 13 executive order issued in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police on May 25. Cuomo’s executive order required all local police agencies in New York state to form local committees to look for ways to improve police procedures, “for the purposes of addressing the particular needs of the communities served by such police agency and promote community engagement to foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”
The executive order mandated the plans be adopted by local governments and then sent into the state Division of the Budget by April 1.
According to the reform plan, the Johnstown Police Department currently has the budget to employ 23 police officers, two command staff and two support staff, although two patrol officer positions and one support staff job are currently vacant. The patrol division has two female officers, the detective division has one Hispanic officer and one officer categorized under “other race.”
The department patrols the city’s 4.82 square miles and its population of approximately 8,277 people. According to the report, the race and ethnicity of the city residents is approximately: 87.3 percent white, 5.2 percent Hispanic, 4.5 percent black, 2.5 percent “mixed or other race” and 0.6 percent Asian.
Police Chief David Gilbo said the Johnstown Police Department has not been accredited by New York state since 2017, something he hopes to change by the end of 2021.
“In 2017 we withdrew from the [state] accreditation because we weren’t even close to the newer standards that were required at that point,” Gilbo said. “It was a total revamp of the system, and our managers, prior to that, had not kept up to date on that, so we’re now under the new accreditation standards, and we’re like, almost … I would say three-quarters, if not further ahead, in getting all of those completed, and we’ve been in contact with [the state] to get reaccredited.”
Gilbo said the advantage to Johnstown in becoming a state accredited police department would be a “slight discount” in the insurance policy the city pays for in case of lawsuits against the department, and it would bring Johnstown’s police department up to the “highest standard” for law enforcement agencies in the state.
The police reform initiative may have helped speed along his department’s process in adopting state standards, Gilbo said, such as a new state mandate requiring police officers — whether on or off duty — to verbally report within six hours when they discharge their weapons under any circumstances where a person could be struck by a bullet and to file a written report within 48 hours.
Johnstown’s “Use of Force Policy” had not included the specific six and 48 hour hour time frames now mandated by the state, Gilbo said, but instead asked police to report on-duty discharge of weapons “immediately.” Gilbo said Johnstown has long required any discharge of a weapon while on duty to be reported using a form, including incidents when police were forced to shoot deer hit by cars. Gilbo said his understanding of new requirements are that those are the time frames the police department must report weapons having been fired to the state.
“We wouldn’t allow an officer to fire his weapon and then five and half hours later he says ‘by the way I shot at a raccoon and there were 15 people standing behind him,'” Gilbo said. “Right now we don’t have off-duty weapons, so their off-duty weapon is their own weapon, so they’d have to report that as far as any other citizen did.”
Johnstown’s police reform plan includes a 2019 survey conducted by the police and the Criminal Justice Department of Fulton-Montgomery Community College, which showed 70% of residents of the city are either satisfied or very satisfied with the Johnstown police, 78% of people feel safe in their homes, but only 43% were satisfied by the department’s community policy efforts and 40% were either unsure or answered no to the question of whether the department makes it easy for the community to provide feedback. The average age of the respondents ranged from 18-64 and 58% were female, and 39% male.
Under the “Increase Transparency of Arrest Activities” reform item in Johnstown’s plan the police will now make additional efforts to “ensure citizens have access to appropriate police data & arrest activities via a monthly report placed on the city of Johnstown website and social media sites.” The reform item also calls for allowing “newspapers to list department statistics” and that the monthly reports will include “calls for service, cases and arrests, and use of force incidents” as well as “arrests by sex and race” and the number of personnel complaints filed.
Gilbo said its been his policy since he became chief in 2018 to issue monthly reports to the Common Council including some of the statistics now required by the reform plan. He said the city clerk usually includes his reports in the minutes of the city’s Common Council meetings, which are posted to the city’s website. He acknowledged that in the past the Johnstown Police Department has not always released arrest blotter data with the same level of transparency as some other local police departments, something the new reporting requirements may help improve.
“[The Johnstown Police Department] has a Facebook page, which I will make sure it’s available on there, whatever my city reports are for the month,” Gilbo said. “The only things we’ve never reported [include] that we had ‘3 uses of forces’, and we have to say ‘male or female’ because, again, another state little quirk is we can’t ask people whether they’re male or female, and yet they want us to report the gender and sex of the individual. Everything in today’s society, you have to word it a certain way as far as ‘do you go by the gender you were born or the sex that you were born’, but now they want the arrests [categorized by gender], which I don’t understand.”
Gilbo said his monthly reports will not include a police narrative of arrests, only raw statistical numbers.
“I’m not giving any details out as far as their names or anything else,” he said. “Some people misconstrue this police reform as being, if they call up saying ‘I want to know why the police are at my neighbor’s house last night’ that’s not part of this. I have no problem with reporting the numbers and all of that. Even the number of personnel complaints we’ve received. We’re not hiding anything, because obviously if people file personnel complaints they’re going to know whether or not I actually listed them or not.”
Gilbo said his goal is to get his first monthly report of statistics posted in April to the police department’s Facebook page and possibly broken out as a separate report posted to the city’s website.
Another one of the state mandates as part of the police reform process is the repeal of the state’s Civil Rights Law 50-a, which had made all personnel records used to evaluate the performance toward continued employment or promotion of police officers not subject to inspection or review by the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Now those documents are subject to FOIL, but must be redacted to protect personal information like an officer’s medical history.
Gilbo said he knows some elements of the repeal of 50-a have been challenged in court and he won’t be releasing any parts of personnel files unless the city’s attorney, and likely its labor attorney, sign off on the release first.
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