EDITORIAL: Protection starts here

THE LICENSE PLATE SAID FLORIDA. Not unusual when what we call hot weather here would seem refreshingly cool down there. The car’s passengers were getting out. The dog was eager to greet them but I steered him in the opposite direction. No use taking chances.

It’s come to that. Fearing others based on what state they’re from. What we know so far about the coronavirus gives us reason to be wary. Florida currently leads the list of 22 states most of whose residents aren’t welcome here unless they and their traveling companions are willing to self-quarantine for two weeks. That’s how threatening spikes in Covid-19 are.

Apart from their car, how could anyone know where strangers come from or whether they’re strangers at all? Governor Cuomo has issued an executive order authorizing civil penalties of up to $10,000 for violation of the self-quarantine requirement. This week he released a plan to enforce that order at major airports around the state. Airports? What about parking lots?

The state Department of Health does not have its own police force. Let’s hope no one suggests that it should. But if state or local officials decide they do need help from the police, there are plenty of officers around. The Sheriff’s Office and the State Police have countywide jurisdiction. The City of Hudson has its own full-time Police Department and four other municipalities have part-time departments: Chatham, Greenport, Philmont and Stockport. Plus there are state Environmental Conservation Police and Park Police.

The list makes it sound like a lot of police for a county of 60,000 people. But is it? We may be about to find out. Last month the governor turned his attention away from the pandemic momentarily to another crisis facing the country: the brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and other recent deaths of Black Americans around the country killed by police. The governor’s Executive Order No. 203, called the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, requires all local governments in the state that have police agencies must act immediately “to eliminate racial inequities in policing, to modify and modernize policing strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, and to develop practices to better address the particular needs of communities of color to promote public safety, improve community engagement, and foster trust.”

In this county that includes the Sheriff’s Office, the Hudson PD and the police in the towns and villages. The order requires that the plan that each police agency adopts “shall be offered for public comment to all citizens in the locality, and after consideration of such comments, shall be presented to the local legislative body in such political subdivision, which shall ratify or adopt such plan by local law or resolution, as appropriate, no later than April 1, 2021.”

The date is significant because that’s when the state fiscal year begins. Any municipality that doesn’t come up with a plan by then could risk losing funds from the state.

The threat to withhold money signals that the governor is serious about changing police practices. But whether good intentions yield better policing will depend on whether advocates for the Black Lives Matter movement and their supporters can convince the municipal committees to address the needs of the Black and other minority communities and to monitor the results.

Any county resident who doubts that people of color demand change here may have missed the peaceful protest marches in Chatham, Hudson and in Kinderhook, where the protesters faced the threat of gun violence from two local people. But fortunately, there have been no tragic confrontations here. To the extent this is the result of good police training and practices, those should be embraced by all police agencies in the county. To the extent it is good luck, do not assume it will last.

The governor’s well-intended order is missing a key element: a way for police agencies, municipalities and the public to see and share plans around the state. This would encourage the parties to learn from each other and reduce duplication of effort. It would also require state funding. You’d think he could find the money.

The nation is deeply divided over both health and safety. In New York right now, we’ve made progress protecting our health. As for safety for Black people, in this county the demand is real, its supporters are diverse and they will prevail.

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