When can city police officers use force? And in which circumstances?
It’s impossible for the public to know for sure because the Schenectady Police Department has withheld that information, according to a new report issued by New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
The NYCLU analysis criticized the department for what it contends is a lack of transparency regarding several department policies.
Some of the key findings from the report released on Wednesday:
- The department heavily redacted its use of force policy and withheld information on the types of situations authorizing the use of pepper spray;
- The department has withheld information on the types of weapons carried by officers;
- The department produced 392 use of force reports between April 2013 and May 2015, but redacted “most info” on race and gender;
- The department uses predictive policing software, but has no written policies in place to govern its usage.
The report also claimed city police failed to provide data on the number of stops or field interviews carried out by officers, as well as data on investigations into allegations of officer misconduct.
For the analysis, the civil rights watchdog group filed Freedom of Information Law requests in 2015 with 23 police departments statewide for basic police functions and operations, “including use of force, police stops, low-level offense enforcement, department diversity and use of surveillance technology.”
The group contends the perceived information vacuum reinforces “the mistrust between police and the communities they serve” and stymies potential reform and political oversight because it’s impossible to fully assess the merits of the policies.
“Schenectady should be thinking about more transparency — not less,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU Capital Region Chapter.
The Schenectady Police Department declined comment on Tuesday, citing the need to read the full report, which hadn’t been released to the public until early Wednesday morning.
“Once the report is released, we will thoroughly review it and at that time have comment,” said Sgt. Matthew Dearing.
USE OF FORCE
The Schenectady Police Department was unique among the departments to the extent that use of force policies had been blacked out, Trimble said.
Documents provided by NYCLU reveal wide swathes had been redacted, including those governing use of deadly physical force, the Special Operations Squad and vice raids.
The report also found city police redacted the criteria for procedures to be followed by the department’s “Emotionally Disturbed Person Response Team.”
“People experiencing crisis or with intellectual and developmental disabilities face increased risk of harm during police encounters,” read the report. “Not being able to review the department’s policies for these interactions makes it impossible to know whether [SPD] is adequately addressing these concerns when they respond to people in distress.”
The most recent batch of data referenced in the study was received by August 2017, which means departments may have updated their policies since then.
The Schenectady Police Department is currently undergoing a comprehensive policy analysis as part of its efforts to receive state accreditation.
Officials said last month that drafting an updated "use of force" policy remained a big ticket item before asking the state Division of Criminal Justice Services for a formal inspection.
Part of that is creating a Use of Force Command Panel, which would fold in existing elements of internal affairs and the department’s oversight board.
The department also said it aims to update policies regarding community engagement and recruiting.
The department has received high marks recently from community activists and the county Human Rights Commission, which awarded Chief Eric Clifford an award last month for efforts designed to work more closely with the community.
And in a response to a NYCLU report last week that faulted Schenectady County for racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests, Executive Director Angelicia Morris said Clifford and the Police Department have been “working tirelessly to continue to implement and execute building better relationships with the community and neighborhood associations over the past decade.”
The Schenectady Police Department was also unique in the cities surveyed in the use of “predictive policing,” or the practice of using algorithms and data to identify potential criminal activity and deploying resources accordingly.
“Schenectady was the only one that confirmed use, while 17 departments responded that they didn’t use predictive policing, and five departments simply ignored the question and gave no response,” said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at NYCLU.
City police input “all types of criminal activity” into their software for analysis in order to produce a map to “assist in predicting where, when and what types of crimes will be occurring in particular areas,” according to NYCLU.
Officers are then deployed to hot spots flagged by the software, increasing stops and field interview cards through a saturation-type approach.
NYCLU says the lack of policies are problematic because the reliance on incomplete or “racially-biased enforcement data” would undermine the usefulness of any predictions that come out.
“Without better data and steps to account for biases, predictive policing software mostly just predicts where police will be deployed and where enforcement activity will be encouraged,” read the report.
NYCLU said the strategy also runs the risk of “perpetuating racially-biased enforcement patterns” because arrests for low-level offenses disproportionately target communities of color.
The watchdog group concluded there needs to be more public debate and scrutiny over these types of tools, including surveillance technology.
Data from Saratoga Springs Police Department was also studied.
The department was faulted by NYCLU for failing to keep demographic information for motorists stopped between 2012 and 2014; for lack of diversity within the department and the lack of policies on “bias-based policing, interacting with persons with disabilities or interacting with persons with limited English proficiency.”
A department spokesman declined comment on Tuesday, citing the need to read the full report.
NYCLU believes the analysis is further evidence that 50-a, the section of New York’s Civil Rights Law that allows the police to shield information from the public, including personnel records, must be repealed.
Sisitzky said the provision has been “dramatically expanded” in recent years and has served as a barrier to investigate police misconduct.
The law came under increased scrutiny in 2014 by civil rights groups and activists following the death of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by a NYPD officer.
“It really sparked a movement in New York to hold officers accountable,” Sisitzky said.