Democratic candidates for Saratoga Springs mayor and public safety commissioner on Tuesday said they thought a Monday press conference about a late-night fight on Caroline Street turned overtly political and failed to offer solutions to the city’s public safety challenges.
During Monday’s press conference, Assistant Police Chief John Catone, who is set to retire early next year, blamed racial justice activists and Democratic lawmakers for perpetuating a “narrative” that Saratoga police officers were racist.
While Catone did not specifically name any local politicians he felt were contributing to that narrative, he did say that some people running for public office had adopted a narrative that police were “racist killers who should be defunded.” At one point, Catone promised to draw on all of his family’s connections in the city to combat that narrative and people who pushed it.
“I will, on my final eight months on the job, pull out every single connection my family has made over the last 130 years, and I will stop your narrative,” he said.
(Saratoga Springs Police Chief Shane Crooks did not attend the press conference Monday because he was camping on vacation, Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said Monday.)
Former Saratoga public safety commissioner Ron Kim, who is running for mayor on the Democratic ticket, and Jim Montagnino, a retired attorney and former prosecutor, both said they thought Catone was referring to Democratic candidates in the city, even though they argued Catone mischaracterized their positions. Both said they supported adding more police to the force, though did not specify how many more police they thought were needed.
“To me at some point, (Assistant Police) Chief Catone crossed into political statements and he was in City Hall, a taxpayer-funded place, and I assume he didn’t clock out,” Kim said. “So he was being paid by taxpayers to make those statements.”
Kim said he was concerned that he didn’t think Catone or Dalton, who is running for mayor as an independent, provided constructive solutions to managing problems on the city’s busy bar scene.
“I was more concerned about the panicky way [an assistant] chief of police is talking about what’s happening now and having really no solution, really no solution except to blame the patrons, blame the bar owners, and I guess blame Democratic candidates and lie about them saying ‘defund the police,’” Kim said Tuesday. He said he watched a recording of the press conference. “Where is the solution in all of that?”
Current Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly on Tuesday declined to comment on the press conference. “I’m not going to get myself caught here, I have no comment,” she said when reached by phone.
Montagnino, who attended the press conference, said he heard city police officials highlight numerous reasons for violent incidents in the city but argued they failed to offer solutions. During the press conference, police officials and Dalton collectively urged bar owners to enforce rules against serving minors or over-serving customers; Dalton suggested school district officials could be more cooperative in disciplining youth involved in criminal activity in the city, and police said recent criminal justice reforms – such as bail reform and raising the age for certain felony crimes – made it harder for police to address criminal activity.
“Everything and everybody got blamed for the problem: raise the age was at fault, bail reform was at fault, bar owners were at fault, parents were at fault, the school district, teachers were at fault,” he said. “I felt that the entire press conference was a thinly-disguised political promotional event for Robin Dalton’s mayoral candidacy and frankly I’m troubled by a uniformed officer, the assistant police chief, basically engaging in partisan political activity in a public press conference under the guise of providing information to the city.”
He also disputed the idea that he supported defunding the police and said none of the other Democratic candidates running for office in the city had taken such a position.
“I have never advocated defunding the police, and I’m quite opposed to the notion of defunding police,” he said.
Montagnino and Kim also dismissed the idea that racial justice activists were somehow contributing to a rise in violent incidents. Both said that they are supportive of the Saratoga Springs Police Department but are also open to reforms like a civilian review board, which city officials earlier this year rejected amid a slate of other reform recommendations developed by a task force of community members.
For her part, Heidi Owen West, the Republican candidate for mayor and a longtime downtown business owner, on Tuesday said she wanted to see the city move past the acrimony over who was to blame for crime and get the City Council working together to address the problem.
“We have real issues that we need to address, and I don’t think it’s a time to politicize them,” West said. “We need to come together for the needs of our city, no blaming, no finger-pointing. This is a perfect example of when to put politics aside.”
She also said it was unfair to blame downtown businesses and said that instead they should be invited to contribute ideas and solutions for addressing the challenges of large crowds downtown.
Pointing to Catone’s decades of experience in the Saratoga Springs Police Department, West said she thought if he was urging the community to focus on crime then the community should listen.
“[Assistant] Chief Catone has been at it for a very long time and if he is calling out our community that is something we need to listen to,” West said. “He is calling on us as a community to come together that we all need to come together to do our part to solve the issue.”
During the Monday press conference, Dalton said she thinks the Police Department needed about 20 more officers on the force but acknowledged there was not enough time to get new hires on the streets before the city’s busy summer season. She said the city was coordinating with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department and state police to manage patrols over the coming months.
But Kim argued city officials should have been more prepared for an expected increase in visitors and bar-goers as more and more businesses have reopened as restrictions have lifted. He also said the annual track season and the strains that brings to the community should have been anticipated.
“How are you getting cops in the short term if you’ve got this problem that you knew about?” Kim said. “You knew this was coming and suddenly you are saying I have to have more cops.”
Kim suggested bringing bar owners and other community members together to consider ways to mitigate the potential for conflict during late-night hours. He said he thinks the city should look at establishing checkpoints on both ends of Caroline Street on busy nights, where bar-goers could be carded and checked for weapons as they entered the bar-filled street.
“We have a problem and the problem is not going to get solved by pointing fingers,” Kim said. “It’s going to get solved by bringing the community together and figuring out what we can do.”