SCHENECTADY — City police officers are now prohibited from placing their knee on a suspect’s head as a control hold and the department will boost de-escalation training.
City police announced the ban and additional reforms on Thursday, days after a controversial arrest in which a city police officer knelt on a suspect’s neck area and punched him a half-dozen times, a measure that generated community outrage and international headlines.
Among the other reforms announced by the city:
- “The Use of Force continuum, that include at least six levels of steps, with clear rules on escalation, will be returned to the departments Use of Force Policy and immediately trained as a component of further de-escalation training.
- “All warrantless arrests will be approved by patrol supervisors, who will be on scene to supervise all custodial arrests to assure that any force used is in compliance of departmental policy and local, state and federal laws.
- “The department will immediately seek the removal of police certification for any officer that is determined to use deadly physical force that is unwarranted by federal guidelines.
- “The department will immediately begin discussions with the Civilian Police Review Board to explore changes that will serve to build public confidence. The department will support the agreed upon changes and request that the Schenectady City Council adopt them immediately.
The reforms, which follow the city’s executive order banning knee-to-neck holds last month, take effect immediately.
The past four days have been “especially trying” for city residents, city Police Chief Eric Clifford said.
“The events that have occurred nationally over the past month have made policing challenging for all police officers, who have worked through a pandemic and are currently working in an environment where the rules and best practices are rapidly changing,” Clifford said in a released statement.
City officials announced the reforms a day after meeting with the Schenectady NAACP, the Civilian Police Review Board, City Council President John Mootooveren and City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield.
They met shortly before police released partial body camera footage of the altercation between Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud and Officer Brian Pommer on Monday, which was sparked when Pommer responded to a call by a neighbor accusing Gaindarpersaud of slashing his tires.
Footage reveals Pommer circling through a series of mediation scenarios with the neighbor, who police haven’t identified, before approaching Gaindarpersaud, who ran away after Pommer confronted him and attempted to take him into custody.
Upon subduing Gaindarpersaud, Pommer punched him six times in the torso while holding his knee to his neck area before two officers arrived and handcuffed him.
Pommer has been temporarily assigned to desk duty and officials said the internal investigation could be concluded as soon as Friday.
Several of the reforms announced Thursday, including the training component and stripping certification from officers found to have used unwarranted deadly physical force, fulfill demands issued by the Schenectady NAACP earlier this week.
But the roadmap to changing Civilian Police Review Board policy, the civilian panel tasked with investigating police misconduct, is more gradual.
Schenectady NAACP wants the nine-member panel to have independent investigative and subpoena powers, while community activists All of Us are calling for the panel to be granted “full access to unredacted files and evidence and the power to submit to the attorney general for further review, investigation and potential charges.”
At present, the board is barred from participating in investigations and it cannot issue subpoenas, instead relying on documents provided by the Police Department's Internal Affairs division.
Without investigatory powers, the board relies on the City Council to subpoena additional materials if necessary, said Board Chairman Richard Shave on Thursday.
The low-profile panel has struggled with membership in the past, and Shave asked the City Council last fall to expedite the nomination process for members, each of whom are appointed by a different organization, including neighborhood associations, civil rights groups and the mayor's office.
The board is currently filled, said Shave, who estimated the panel hears between three to eight cases per month, which could range from discourtesy complaints to use of force.
Change is already coming.
Typically police restrict access to audio and visual materials only to the chairman, Shave said.
But that restriction was relaxed on Wednesday when he and another board member watched the body camera footage in the meeting that hashed out the changes.
“Things are changing very fast,” Shave said. “It’s a very fluid situation.”
On the reform process, Shave said, “We’re looking forward to working with them.”
Mootooveren said the timeline for reforming the panel is contingent on how quickly materials and proposals are provided by the mayor’s office, the Police Department and other organizations.
But he said he will reach out to the Civilian Review Board and Schenectady NAACP to begin the process.
“We will act on [the proposed changes] in a timely manner once we get everyone on board and once there’s an agreement in the room,” Mootooveren said.
A clip of the encounter between Pommer and Gaindarpersaud, which was recorded by Gaindarpersaud’s father and posted to social media, has ignited intense public debate and placed the department in the spotlight just six weeks after Clifford and his officers received acclaim for taking a knee and marching with protesters.
Clifford has defended Pommer’s actions, noting Gaindarpersaud was resisting arrest and that his breathing and blood circulation was never compromised during the altercation.
The investigation, he said, will explore the totality of Pommer’s response — not just the physical struggle.
But despite the release of the footage, gaps remain:
Gaindarpersaud claims he blacked out during the ride to police headquarters — Clifford contends he did not — and in-car video has yet-to-be released.
(Gaindarpersaud previously said he didn't run from Pommer, but rather walked briskly, which footage revealed to be inaccurate.)
He was ultimately charged with criminal mischief and resisting arrest, both misdemeanors, court records show.
Activists and civil rights groups say while Gaindarpersaud was not fatally injured, the altercation parallels the sequence of events that led to the death of George Floyd, who died in May after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes after he was accused of passing a counterfeit bill at a neighborhood grocery store.
All of Us said the public discussion over whether Pommer’s knee was on Gaindarpersaud’s neck or head, as well as the debate over whether he ran or not, obscures the bigger point when it comes to police interaction with minorities: The amount of force used to subdue someone suspected of a minor crime is often disproportionate and can quickly lead to tragic outcomes.
“Why are we using these kinds of tactics to address that kind of matter?” said All of Us co-founder Shawn Young.
De-escalation would have likely avoided the situation, said Young, who analyzed the video with All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles in a Zoom call on Thursday morning.
All of Us wants the reallocation of police funding to community-based restorative groups for conflict resolution and other practices, which is one of the 13 demands the group presented to the city police last month.
Clifford previously said the department wouldn’t make policy changes until after a series of community meetings mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The meetings are part of Cuomo's directive ordering police departments statewide to undergo reforms with community input by next April or risk of losing state funding.
But Monday’s arrest appears to have accelerated the process:
“These reforms are just the beginning and as community conversations continue, additional reforms and changes will be made and immediately communicated to the public,” McCarthy said in a prepared statement.
Clifford said the department is committed to building trust and reforming the department to meet the community’s vision.
“Although that level of trust is being questioned right now, we are committed to continuing to serve our community,” Clifford said.