Schenectady’s Civilian Police Review Board can be the best-kept secret in town, board members and advocates said Thursday night.
The review board, police department and city leaders attempted to chip away at that reputation with a panel discussion meant to educate the public on what the body does and how it functions within the community and the police department. Attendees and panelists spoke about the importance of community policing, as well as the composition of the review board and how it could better reflect the city.
About 50 people attended the Thursday night forum, which was held in the Parsons Memorial Church of God in Christ at the corner of State and Catherine streets.
Panelists included review board chairman Richard Homenick, Police Chief Eric Clifford, board member Randy McGough and board advocate the Rev. Phil Grigsby, who is the executive director of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry.
When a complaint is filed, whether it be about excessive force, harassment or another violation of procedure, it is investigated by the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards. That unit submits its findings to Clifford, who then determines appropriate disciplinary action.
Once the case is done, it’s sent to the review board, which will comb through the facts and evidence of the complaint before voting on whether it was handled properly or if it warrants further action.
From October 2014 through March 8, the board reviewed 100 cases, totaling 159 complaints. Ninety-five were procedure complaints, 42 were discourtesy complaints and 22 dealt with excessive force.
On Thursday night, attendees raised suggestions about how the board could better reflect and serve the community.
Rockie Mann, a Schenectady resident, recalled to the audience about getting pulled over by police. Though he is a business owner with no prior violations, Mann, who is black, said he was nervous about the interaction as the officer approached his car.
He was let off with a warning for not using his turn signal and had no issues, but he said many African Americans experience the same anxiety when dealing with law enforcement.
He suggested adding a younger person of color to the board to better represent that perspective in future complaints.
“If we’re going to represent the community, that’s the first thing that ran through my mind,” he said.
Another attendee added that it’s important for young people to see police officers out in the neighborhood, and for the community to be intentional about engaging with younger residents.
“It’s very important that our first interaction with an officer isn’t in a time of crisis,” he said.
A few audience members questioned whether certain codes limit who can participate on the board.
For example, the Rev. Horace Sanders pointed to a rule that states review board members must be city members. He said if non-city residents can serve as city police officers, those living outside of Schenectady should be able to serve on the board.
One man suggested residents might have trouble trusting the review board if it’s receiving complaints from the police department and doesn’t have an independent investigator or subpoena power.
He proposed the City Council might review the code to look at those limitations moving forward.
The panel briefly discussed the possibility of hiring an independent investigator for the review board, a position that hasn’t been funded for several years.
Homenick and Grigsby have expressed interest in talking about securing funding for the role, but Clifford has said that job is already being done by members of the police department, and that he is holding those officers accountable.
Homenick said hearing from residents is valuable, and can help improve the board’s operations.
“Like any board or service to a community it’s a work in progress,” Homenick said. “It shouldn’t be just static. And that’s a big part of what we’re doing here tonight.”