SARATOGA SPRINGS — Acting just hours ahead of a state-imposed deadline, the Saratoga Springs City Council on Wednesday approved a police reform and reinvention plan — one that will push the city toward establishing a civilian review board that would have authority to review complaints against police officers.
The council voted 4-1 to approve a resolution drafted by City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis that has generated public criticism because it doesn’t fully support all 50 recommendations made in early March by a citizen task force that looked at ways to reform policing in the city.
The central point of contention has been a recommendation for a civilian review board to review citizen complaints about police — a recommendation the resolution accepts “in principle” while saying issues around how such a board would be created and would operate need to be addressed. The resolution calls for a new committee to follow up on the recommendations to be established by June 1.
Only Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan explained her thinking in public prior to the vote. Accounts Commissioner John Franck, who voted against the resolution, said last week that he thought the task force recommendations should have been adopted in their entirety.
“I cannot understand all the divisiveness and contentiousness,” Madigan said, following a public comment period filled with pointed criticism and charges of racism. “I think we are on very solid ground, and we are taking this very seriously.”
“Reform takes time, and the Saratoga Springs Police Department is well on its way,” she said later in her remarks. “Each item now needs further review, and that is what this resolution states…There will be accountabilty, there will be implementation.”
The nature of the city’s commitment — or lack thereof — to establishing a civilian review board has been the main topic of public debate in recent weeks as the council has reviewed the task force recommendations.
On Wednesday, the council heard 35 people speak during an hour of public comment, nearly all of them in favor of the review board — though one speaker, a city police officer, accused the task force of not doing enough to understand the day-to-day duties of policing.
Even more people spoke during a meeting held on March 23, — including task force members and social justice activists — all of whom also urged adoption of all the recommendations without reservation, citing concerns about policing both nationally and locally.
“Every single institution in this city and in this nation has to reform itself, the difference is the police have weapons,” Daesha Harris, who was a member of the task force, said on Wednesday.
The resolution accepting the recommendations went through three drafts, shifting in favor of the council more clearly accepting recommendations.
DeLeonardis told the council that there are potential issues around establishing a civilian review board that will need to be addressed, either now or during any implementation phase. He said those issues include determining whethet there is need to amend the City Charter, and determine the impacts on labor contracts with the several unions that represent police officers in the city.
“None of this is to suggest that a civilian review board is a bad idea or a good idea, but to say these are issues that have to be addressed,” DeLeonardis told the council.
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. Most communities in the Capital Region have adopted plans in the last couple of weeks, with a handful waiting until the last minute, as Saratoga has.
Cuomo’s order was issued in response to Black Lives Matter protests over police-involved deaths of unarmed Black civilians across the country. A Capital Region group, 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.”
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 deal specifically with mental health calls, diversify the department’s personnel, and modify internal disciplinary review procedures. Those recommendations were all accepted in full.
But the resolution also notes the recommendations that DeLeonardis said the city can’t legally adopt because of federal and state laws or policies, including directing that drug asset forfeiture funds be spent on non-law enforcement purposes, and limiting the kinds of equipment outside police agencies can deploy when responding to incidents in the city.