The Saratoga Springs City Council scheduled a public hearing for its next October meeting on establishing a community review board empowered to investigate complaints against city police.
The hearing will give the public an opportunity to offer input into a proposal to codify into city code the establishment of a community police review board before city officials moved forward.
The details of the proposed board, which Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton advanced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, are still not clear, and Mayor Meg Kelly at the meeting raised concerns about the process of bringing the proposal forward. But establishing a civilian review board was one of the major recommendations of a city task force charged with developing ideas for police reform.
Jason Golub, an attorney and community member, volunteered to research examples of police review boards in other communities, and he has presented his findings to the City Council at meetings over recent months. Golub in his presentation has emphasized the importance of achieving broad community support, including among police leaders, to implement a successful review board. He has also discussed providing sufficient funding for a review board, ensuring members selected to serve receive training and making sure to provide office space outside of City Hall.
A civilian review board would serve as an independent panel of community members empowered to investigate claims of police misconduct, determine whether an officer violated department policies and offer recommendations to improve police and community relations.
City Council members have expressed support for a review board – all three major mayoral candidates on Monday said they would support a review board – but the path forward is still not clear. Kelly raised concerns about the timing of moving forward without better communicating the proposal to the public and said she didn’t think the proposed ordinance was sufficiently specific. A draft copy of the ordinance was not part of the more than 400 pages of materials included as part of Tuesday’s agenda.
“The lack of transparency is troublesome for something so important,” Kelly said. “The ordinance is very vague and it’s very troublesome.”
Dalton argued that the City Council has previously discussed the idea of a review board at recent meetings and said a review board was widely supported in the community.
“I think this is a good piece of legislation, there is widespread public support for it,” Dalton said.
The proposed ordinance calls for an unpaid five-member panel, with one member selected by each of the city’s council members and approved by at least three other council members, according to a draft Dalton provided Wednesday. The members should “represent a range of culturally and economically diverse experiences and views” and be able to “objectively, dispassionately, and fairly represent the community” while serving on the board, according to the draft.
The draft ordinance outlines seven functions the board would have the authority to perform in its advisory role: recommend amendments to the Police Department’s rules and policies; receive statements of appreciation from citizens regarding positive police actions; develop a complaint process for anyone who feels city police violated department policy in an interaction with them; review relevant records held by the Police Department; recommend that further action be taken by the police chief or the public safety commissioner to resolve a complaint; keep records of its proceedings and make annual reports in writing to the City Council regarding its activities and the number of complaints received.
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan on Tuesday night also outlined the city’s planned comprehensive budget, which included a 15% increase in funding for the Public Safety Department, a boost of over $1 million. Madigan said the budget plan “prepares now for future needs.”
The increased funding would support three new full-time police officers, four new firefighters, a pair of dispatchers, a greeter at City Hall, a senior clerk and a code technician. Dalton said she will work to “ensure it passes” after two public budget workshops are scheduled in the coming weeks.
Activists continue to press message
Racial justice activists at Tuesday’s meeting also continued to argue against what they described as racism in Saratoga Spring, and some supporters offered their voices for the first time at the meeting.
Melanie Trimble, the Capital Region director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, again put city officials on notice that her organization, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, were watching the actions of the city and its Police Department. Trimble has criticized the Saratoga police over numerous arrests of protesters and has accused city police of seeking to intimidate activists.
She said the arrests of protesters were “clearly calculated to cause fear and intimidation” and have had “chilling effects on protesters and will likely have on anyone considering participating in future protests.”
She said activists and protesters were acting on core principles of free speech and the right to assemble and petition their government.
“Police ought to be protecting that right, not suppressing it,” Trimble told the City Council.
Jasmine Shea, of Albany County, described instances in her life where she said Saratoga Springs police acted in a biased way toward her. She also said that her mom once had to explain to her why someone in Saratoga would call her brother the N-word.
“I have never felt comfortable here in Saratoga and that goes back to playing you guys in schools,” she said during public comments at Tuesday’s council meeting. “When I hear Saratoga, I feel like it’s old, rich, white money that doesn’t want me here … I have come here and felt uncomfortable every single time; it’s just exhausting. Sometimes the white supremacy glows so hard here it’s blinding.”
Chel Miller, a Saratoga Springs High School graduate who works as a rape survivor advocate, said the emotion that has spilled from many local activists at recent meetings and events, and has been used by some to dismiss their complaints, comes from a place of deep trauma and generational mistreatment of people based on their race.
“Something you are hearing here is rage, it’s coming from a place of pain, from a place of trauma,” Miller said. “What you are hearing is trauma. Do you know what it feels like to try all these official avenues to have your voice heard? Do you know the feeling of being ignored, of being locked up for hours …? Think about it.”