EDITORIAL: G’town doesn’t need its cops

HEADQUARTERS LOOKS MORE LIKE a frat house bedroom than a police station, with trash spilling from desk to floor. Public documents tacked to the wall are out of date–their information useless. Police gear lies out in the open and, if officers did arrest someone, there’s no place suitable to process the alleged criminal.

That’s the description of the Germantown Police Department contained in a scathing report prepared at the request of the Germantown Town Board by retired New York State Police Superintendent Harry Corbitt. He says the best thing the Town Board could do right now is not let the Germantown force have any contact with the public.

That won’t be difficult. In fact the entire department is out of action right now. The officer in charge of the Germantown Police Department is currently on paid administrative leave. The GPD’s officer–there’s only one–was let go last month by the board for failure to take an oath of office this year. That oversight is sometimes cured by having the oath-less officer take the oath right away. Not in Germantown. Not now, anyway.

A public hearing on Mr. Corbitt’s report was scheduled for Wednesday, July 18, followed by a special meeting of the Town Board on the fate of the GPD. That’s after the press deadline for this issue of The Columbia Paper, so it’s not clear what the board will do. But the two obvious options are to improve the department or disband it.

The board could choose to hire new officers or even go with the most recent staff as soon as each of the two officers meet all state standards. That would require a major increase in the town budget for training and equipment. Local property owners would be saddled with the cost.

Doing away with the police and contracting with the Sheriff’s Office to provide more coverage would not save much in terms of current costs, according to estimates by board members three years ago, when an earlier report identified some of the same problems cited by Mr. Corbitt. The town wasn’t spending much on police in 2015, either, and it was getting what it paid for.

Residents are already paying for the deputies who serve on the Sheriff’s Office Road Patrol. That money comes from the county’s property tax. The funding for the State Police comes from the state income tax and other state revenues. Both of these agencies provide coverage county-wide, and all deputies and state troopers are accredited police officers.

The Corbitt report, which he calls an assessment, doesn’t have much to say about how the public benefits from properly trained and equipped police. Instead, he goes right to the legal liability that poorly trained officers pose to the town. He reminds the board that when people believe they have been harmed by a police officer they sue the municipality that employs the officer. And part-time officers like Germantown’s aren’t held to a lower standard just because they have less training.

But it’s not only about the money. Residents have to weigh how safe they feel having a Germantown Police Department–cops you might know as your neighbors–and whether that knowledge actually makes you safer or just makes you feel that way.

If you live in Germantown you’re more likely to have your identity stolen by someone in a country you’ve never visited than you are to be mugged while walking to your car. But experts tell us that as a species we aren’t very good at evaluating risk. We want cops who will show up quickly if we need them and we expect that they’ll know what to do the moment they arrive.

That raises a basic question: If it takes a little longer in some cases but the officer who responds is far more skilled than anyone at the GPD… is the trade-off worth it? Yes.

One other point Germantown residents should consider: deputies and troopers are not a foreign army occupying our county; they and their families live here too.

The Town Board will hear feedback from the public this week that may affect its decision about of the GPD. But the Corbitt Assessment coupled with the reality that Germantown is doing okay right now without town police gives the board an opening to do the right thing for the town and disband the department as soon as possible.

The Assessment of the Germantown police by Harry Corbitt, superintendent (retired) of the New York State Police, is online at germantownny.org

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