SCHENECTADY – De-escalation strategies, use of force, and a commitment to anti-racism training were among the litany of topics broached during Wednesday’s monthly police reform and reinvention collaborative that stems from the city’s reform plan sent to the governor earlier this year.
During the virtual meeting, Police Sgt. Matthew Dearing said he and Sgt. Zachary Weakley trained all Schenectady police officers in de-escalation as of Monday. The two sergeants undertook a 16-hour certification program by the Force Science Institute, and in turn, trained the entire department for eight hours. The sergeants also trained the public safety department at The College of Saint Rose.
According to the institute’s website, containment, control, contact and communication are the conditions for effective de-escalation.
After the meeting, Chief Eric Clifford said the department had already instituted the de-escalation training into the Zone 5 Regional Law Enforcement Academy, as part of basic school training.
During the meeting, Rev. Lynn Gardner of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady asked about the possibility of the police training local residents in de-escalation. After the meeting, Clifford told a reporter the idea “absolutely” had merit.
“From the procedural justice end, we want to train the community, and treat people with dignity and respect to give individuals a voice to convey trustworthy motives and remain neutral,” he said. “We want the community to know what they can expect from us. But at the same time, it would make our job easier if the community would practice those four principles also.”
Clifford said it’s also important for the community to know the lengths to which police will go to deescalate a situation because many times the public only sees the end result of an interaction.
“Most of the time when we have to de-escalate a situation, the person we’re de-escalating it with has either a mental illness or they’re intoxicated to the point where their mental capacity doesn’t have them thinking straight,” the chief said.
“So I don’t think training de-escalation is going to help stop people from needing to be de-escalated,” he said, adding the training would at least help with developing a level of understanding from the public.
Clifford said that were it not for the collaborative meetings, he might not have sought this particular level of training.
“Through these conversations with the collaborative, it got us thinking more about de-escalation at a higher level. Not that we never thought about it before, but just at a higher level.”
He said Dearing and Weakley called the institute’s training one of the best they had ever received.
“They came back and they were like, ‘We need to give it to the whole department.’ “
Use of force
The Police Department shared six years of use-of-force data with The John F. Finn Institute For Public Safety in Albany but based on Schenectady’s previous form of reporting, according to director Robert Worden, a member of the collaborative.
The institute identified 90 to 100 instances in which a Taser was used, which wasn’t necessarily a lot in a six-year span, Worden said.
But the data requires a further review and additional information before the institute can start its analysis in earnest, looking at patterns by individual officers, among other categories, Worden said.
Worden said the institute would look at patterns “from every angle that we can apply to the use of force data,” and it hoped to have the analysis done by the end of 2021.
Earlier this year, a state report suggested city police use force more often than their counterparts in larger cities, although the chief at the time questioned the consistency of the reporting.
Clifford had 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 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.
That level of force would be appropriate if the officer is alone with a combative subject and needs to keep his arms free, Clifford has said.
The department agreed to implement anti-racism training as part of the collaborative, and in the first of a two-phased approach, Clifford said the department implemented a 30-week challenge in which officers are charged with a weekly task such as reading an anti-racism article or watching a video. Thus far it is in Week 10.
At the same time, the department aims to establish a training block for its in-service training to officers.
“I firmly believe that many officers, primarily probably most of my white officers, don’t understand what it means to be anti-racist,” Clifford said. “Up until the point that we started talking about it, I’ll openly admit that my definition and my thought of anti-racism was wrong and that by just avoiding the topic and saying I’m not participating in this, I thought I was doing the right thing when, in fact, what you need to do is speak out against it, if you hear it.”
The collaborative is still mulling who would lead the training.
“We’re finding it difficult to find trainers,” Clifford said. “In this capacity, a lot of them are corporate-based, not law enforcement or government-based.”
Rev. Nicolle Harris, president of the Schenectady branch of the NAACP, recommended Diedre Hill Butler, an associate professor of sociology at Union College with a background in diversity and inclusion, to help identify a trainer.
City Councilwoman Carmel Patrick suggested the department consider Kathleen McLean of the McLean Group, a consulting firm that has partnered with various local organizations on diversity, inclusion, team-building and leadership development.