SCHENECTADY – A state report suggests city police use force more often than their counterparts in larger cities, although the police chief questioned the consistency of the reporting.
A report last week by New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services that encompassed 280 police agencies included the big takeaway that Black people were the target of half of all use-of-force incidents involving police.
Statewide, 49% of all targets in 6,052 use-of-force incidents were Black during the study period of July 2019 through Oct. 31, according to the report.
This is disproportionate to the ratio of Black people who live in the state. The state’s population is 19.4 million, of which 17.6% of residents are Black.
Mirroring the state picture, Police Chief Eric Clifford said that just about half of all use-of-force incidents in the city involved Black individuals.
Clifford said those numbers indicate police “have work to do” to gain the trust of Black residents and other people of color in the city.
“It tells me that 49% were not compliant with officers’ directives, and they resisted in some form – it may be a light resistance, it may be a heavy resistance,” Clifford said.
“We as the police recognize that voluntary compliance is always what we need. We have to work harder and better at gaining the trust of the public, so that the citizens of the community who are Black and brown and people of color trust police, and they feel that we’re legitimate. That when we ask for compliance, they voluntarily give it to us without having to use force. That just underscores the work we’re doing with a lot of these reform talks,” Clifford said of the state-mandated reform plan that was sent to the governor in March.
Councilor Marion Porterfield, the city’s lone Black councilmember who’s been critical of the city’s use of force practices, stopped short of saying the numbers were indicative of racial profiling.
“Are they pulling someone over who was a person of color for something that they wouldn’t pull someone over for who was not?” she asked. “That becomes a question. And is there over-policing in certain communities?”
The report also showed that Schenectady police used force 90 times during the study period, which was significantly more than Albany’s 36 incidents and Buffalo’s 52.
Schenectady has a population of about 65,000 residents, of which 20% are Black.
Albany has a population of about 96,000 residents, of which 29% are Black.
Buffalo has a population of 255,000 residents, of whom 36% are Black.
But Clifford said he believes departments may have reported to varying standards, and he feels his department might have “over-reported” its use of force during the 15-month study period.
Clifford said the department included incidents on the lower end of the force continuum, such as when a subject is non-compliant after being told they are under arrest and to put their hands behind their back.
In those cases, the subject might stiffen their arms or take a step away from the officer, and the officer would then bend the subject’s wrist and forcibly handcuff the person, Clifford said.
But this wouldn’t require an officer to take the subject to the ground, deeming it a lower-level use of force, he said.
Given some of the larger, busier departments reported far fewer incidents, Clifford said the data indicated: “We are taking a pretty strong stance on reporting, where we are reporting incidents as uses of force where other jurisdictions may not look at those as reportable. I’m not challenging their lack of reporting. I’m just saying we are, in my belief, over-reporting.”
Within the reporting cycle, Schenectady police had two higher-level uses of force that involved discharging a firearm.
It concerned the March 2020 shooting death of 34-year-old Michael Wallace at Joseph Allen Apartments on Hamilton Hill.
Two officers shot Wallace, who later died, after he briefly emerged from his apartment with what police believed was a firearm, though it turned out to be a pellet gun.
Police were called after Wallace pointed what was believed to be a firearm at an employee.
An attorney general investigation “determined that the justification for the use of force in this situation exercised by the Schenectady Police Department could not be disproven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Clifford said that this singular incident reported two cases of “conduct resulting in death,” but he said that was misleading in that it would appear two people died from police gunfire.
Conversely, Schenectady police also reported instances when an officer pointed a firearm at a subject. This occurred 87 times during the study period.
Clifford said this is a lower-end use of force that might occur when police receive intelligence that there might be a weapon in the car. At times, the subject wasn’t even aware an officer had pointed a gun, the chief said.
Schenectady police have faced scrutiny from Porterfield, the Schenectady branch of the NAACP and Black activists in the wake of last year’s review of a struggle between Patrolman Brian Pommer and city resident Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud.
The officer put his knee on the Guyanese man’s neck during a struggle, and, following national scrutiny, police said it banned chokeholds and knee-to-neck holds.
But police later reviewed the policy and resolved that, in the interest of officer safety and for liability considerations, it would continue to allow an officer to put his knee to a subject’s head when there are no other options.
In particular, the level of force would be appropriate if the officer is alone with a combative subject and needs to keep his arms free, Clifford said.
“We needed to include the caveat ‘unless no other options are available’ on the ban,” Clifford said, adding he’s not aware of any officer having to use that level of force this year.
In the Capital Region, Troy police used force most often, with 103 incidents during the study period.
Amsterdam had 25, Saratoga Springs had 10, and on the lowest end of the spectrum, Ballston Spa Village police had just one use of force incident.
Sheriff’s departments for Schenectady, Saratoga and Montgomery counties had 53, 34 and 16 use of force incidents, respectively.