SCHENECTADY – A recent proposal that failed to gain traction out of the Public Safety Committee resurfaced during the City Council meeting Monday because of its controversial nature.
A resolution proposed last week by Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas that denounced school board member Jamaica Miles’ call for defunding the police was the subject of much debate during Monday’s meeting, with residents on both sides of the debate making their feelings known.
The Public Safety Committee declined to act on the proposed resolution, after Councilwoman Marion Porterfield raised her concern about infringing on Miles’ right to freedom of speech.
The Rev. Nicolle Harris, president of the Schenectady chapter of the NAACP, said that organization was “greatly concerned” after learning about the proposal.
Harris read a portion of the NAACP’s mission statement, and said it was “both alarming and appalling that a resident of this city, be it an elected official or not, be mentioned by name as a part of an illicit motion.”
The resolution specifically asked the council not to defund the police.
Miles, who recently responded to criminal charges for protesting about perceived racial injustice in Saratoga Springs, said during the meeting:
“There is a troubling trend developing here in the Capital Region: a coordinated backlash from city council members, DAs, and other law enforcement against the recent protests about racial inequality, structural violence and poverty.”
The co-founder of the activist group All of Us, added: “This effort is an abuse of power, fear mongering and intimidation. It is an attempt to maintain the status quo.”
Fellow All of Us co-founder Shawn Young questioned whether everyone knew what the call to defund the police meant.
Young said that everyone in the council chambers agreed that preserving the health and well-being of the community was in the city’s best interest. But he said they differed in their approach. He said defunding the police, from his standpoint, wasn’t about scooping up the Police Department and firing all officers.
Rather, he said, it intends to redirect portions of police funding in ways that benefit communities with respect to education, housing and economic opportunity.
“We are looking for ways to make our community better, to make our community healthy, period,” he said. “If that takes reallocating funds into programs that we know benefit our community, let’s do that. Why not. Let’s have the conversation.”
But retired city Police Officer Joe Polak said defunding the police was simply the wrong direction to take, and he called for a halt to divisions that he said focus on hate. He called for the community to come together in unity.
“Instead of defunding the police, why don’t we try befriending the police,” Polak said, adding that the thin blue line wasn’t a cult. Rather, it’s “the distance between a civilized world and utter and total chaos.”
Kevin Hammer, a Republican candidate for city council, admonished Black Lives Matters protesters who converged on a recent community event to hurl obscenities at officers.
“The most vulgar language was directed at the officers who made the brave decision to serve and protect this city, in front of small children, many of whom were absolutely scared of what was going on,” Hammer said. “They were frightened.
Hammer acknowledged the division in the community, but suggested attacking police wasn’t a way to bridge the divide.
Fellow Republican candidate for council, Vivian Parsons, said she was against defunding the police, and she said she’s spoken to many people from different neighborhoods who speak of the need for more police officers and bemoan response times to police calls.
“We’re at a point where we have to say this is 2021, but constantly attacking or dehumanizing an entire group of people is not okay. It is never OK,” Parsons said.
Longtime city resident Bill Marincic said the defund the police movement didn’t belong in Schenectady or anywhere else, and he called on the council to raise its voice in support of the police.
Marincic said that diversity among the police could stand improvement, but with eight Black, four Hispanic, and five women officers, along with those of Greek, Italian, Irish, Polish, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Swedish and Guyanese descent, the resident said it reflects the racial makeup of the city.
“One final thought for the City Council and those so-called community activists,” Marincic said. “If the topic of diversity is so important to you, I would ask you to help the Police Department. I would ask you to recruit someone. Have you? Have you people helped recruit for the police department? If you’re going to criticize the police, be part of the solution and walk the talk, or just shut up.”
Zalewski-Wildzunas didn’t waver from her position opposing Miles’ “defund” stance. The councilwoman read the definition of an activist and one’s for social, political, economic, and environmental reform, with the desire to make changes in society toward a perceived greater good.
“I believe in our Constitution and I respect our First Amendment right to free speech,” she said. “It is my sworn duty to uphold the law, and act in the best interest of the people of Schenectady. Public safety is paramount to every man, woman and child that lives in this city.”
Councilwoman Carmel Patrick said everyone on council firmly supports First Amendment rights.
“But here’s a question,” she asked. “What do we do about foul-mouthed demonstrators who want to scream, confront and insult elected and public safety officials, as well as anyone else who gets in their way. With obscenities, they say a lot, but contribute nothing constructive to our community’s discussions. Screaming doesn’t make someone right.”
Porterfield said that the speakers should take the time to be in a room together to come to common ground.
Porterfield reiterated that defunding the police wasn’t an option for consideration by the council. She said she hadn’t seen a petition from anyone.
She went on to say she was “puzzled” by the proposed resolution because, except for ceremonial resolutions, she’s never seen one that mentioned a person’s name during her nine years on the council.
“It is not what we do,” she said of targeting Miles or any other resident. “To use our office, our seats, our elected role to denounce someone, it’s just not acceptable.”