Saratoga Springs Police Chief Shane Crooks on Thursday apologized for police wrongfully preventing activists from attending public court last month, blaming a “misunderstanding in communication.”
About a dozen supporters of Black Lives Matters activists who appeared in Saratoga Springs city court Sept. 21 on charges connected to a July protest in the city were stopped by Saratoga Springs police at the entrance to city hall, where the independent city court operates on the second floor.
While police officials initially suggested court officials or a judge had prevented access or closed the courtroom, a state court administration spokesperson strongly refuted that claim, emphasizing the importance of public access to the courts and denying that any court official limited access. Court administration officials also communicated the same message directly to city police.
Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton and police leaders said the incident would be investigated, and a statement released in Crooks’ name Thursday appeared to be the conclusion of the investigation.
In the statement, Crooks acknowledged that restricting public access to the court was “improper” and said that at no point did court officials ask city police to limit access. The statement says the restricted access “resulted from a misunderstanding in communication between on-duty members of the Saratoga Springs Police Department.”
“As the chief of police, I apologize for the error, and have taken all appropriate measures to ensure that it will not occur again,” Crooks said in the statement.
Police department spokesperson Lt. Bob Jillson said Crooks was not available for an interview Thursday.
Jillson explained that the decision to prevent access to city hall was the result of confusion over what entrance the activists should have been allowed to enter the building through. He said police had pre-arranged with protesters facing charges and their attorneys for the defendants to turn themselves in at the Lake Avenue side entrance to the city hall building, which leads directly to the police station. Officers were also informed to not allow the defendants’ supporters through that entrance and into city hall. Officers, though, confused the direction to not allow supporters to enter through the Lake Avenue entrance to also apply to the front entrance to city hall, where people enter to access the city court located on the second floor, Jillson said.
“That’s on us at the end of the day,” Jillson said. “It’s a growing pain and unfortunate that these people wrongfully weren’t allowed to go up there (to court).”
Jillson said the misunderstanding was also fueled by the relatively new presence of police officers at the city hall entrance. Since shortly after city hall reopened to the public, police officers and a city greeter have been present just inside the city hall entrance. Separately, the city court, which leases space in city hall through the broader state court system, has its own security presence and metal detector on the second floor.
Lawyers and civil rights advocates raised serious concerns about activists being barred from public court proceedings, highlighting the core nature of public access to the fair administration of justice. Numerous state and federal court opinions have repeatedly held that public access to the courts is essential and can only be limited in rare circumstances and for reasons clearly articulated by a judge.
Activists were not satisfied with the police explanation on Thursday and said it seemed like police were looking to move past actual wrongdoing by explaining it as a misunderstanding. When the activists sought to access city hall, an officer told them they were not allowed in at the orders of his supervisor. A statement from the state court administration spokesperson also indicated a supervisor had instructed officers at the door to not allow the activists access to the building.
“Who is this supervisor that we don’t know about?” said Lexis Figuereo, a main organizer in Saratoga who was among those barred from accessing court while his sister appeared before a judge. “Whoever is this supposed supervisor should be in trouble…. They are trying to sweep it away and there is no accountability again.”