Police reform? County panel starts work

HUDSON—Columbia County has formed a Police Reform Panel. Governor Cuomo’s executive order requires local governments to review police “strategies, policies, procedures and practices, develop an improvement plan to address the particular needs of the communities served, and promote community engagement, foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy and to address any racial bias,” according to the Panel’s website.

The county panel consists of three divisions: the Community Input Panel (31 members), the Elected Official/Law Enforcement Panel (22 members), and the Plan Review Committee (14 members). Some individuals are in more than one division. The Community Input Panel held its first video conference October 20.

The Columbia County Police Reform Panel will consider the Sheriff’s Office as well as departments of Greenport, Philmont, and Stockport police, reported Matt Murrell (R-Stockport), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. The City of Hudson and the Village of Chatham have their own police reform committees.

It is important for police to pay attention to how the community sees them and the people to see that “behind the uniform and badge is a real person,” said Jessica Coutsonikas of Stockport. And most speakers said that the vast majority of police officers are doing a good job.

But members of the panel have had vastly different experiences with police.

Ms. Coutsonikas’ first experience was as a child. “I saw family members arrested.… Did they deserve to be slammed on the ground?” She was six years old. “….What mattered to me was that a person I loved and trusted was being arrested… and taken from me. The bad guy, in my eyes, was the officers. These types of incidents paint a lasting impression.”

Ms. Coutsonikas also spoke about what she said are the salaries and overtime pay that results in compensation much higher than average income for the county.

Reverend Kim Singletary of Hudson pointed out that African Americans make up a disproportionately high percentage of people arrested and imprisoned. “People in the community are complaining.” And they “don’t really know what it means when you’re walking down the street [and] just are pulled over and stopped for no reason.”

‘If there is an injury or death, it is usually because someone did not listen to the police.’

Joe Mormando


County Community Input Panel

On the other hand, Trevor Slowinski of Hudson and Joe Mormando of Claverack reported that what little contact they have had with the police has been positive. Richard Tracy, a former mayor of Hudson, said that as a first responder with the Greenport Rescue Squad for about 47 years, he has “never treated a victim of police abuse.”

Columbia County has “pretty spread out” communities said Moriah Sears, a New Lebanon resident. “We only have a barracks for state troopers… so those are our local law enforcement.”

To unify the police and the community, several speakers advocated joint events with law enforcement personnel and the community, such as barbecues. Reverend Singletary advocated for police officers getting more involved with the community and to “break bread together” with its members. Ms. Coutsonikas said it would help if people saw images of police officers in situations they can relate to: “exhausted from working a long shift… singing along to the song on the radio.”

Mr. Tracy suggested the police have liaisons for the community, and that the community could supply youth representatives.

One place the community sees police positively is in schools with school resource officers, several participants reported.

County Sheriff David Bartlett told of officers stopping to chat with children they saw riding bicycles and handing them ice cream tickets.

One concern several participants brought up is when law enforcement takes, in the words of Reverend Singletary, “militaristic action.”

“Military equipment should not be used” said Ms. Fecher. “It tends to escalate rather than deescalate situations.”

Military equipment is not needed,” added Mr. Tracy. “There must be a softer approach.”

But sometimes the government donates military surplus equipment to the police. William Hughes of Hudson said that when he was a supervisor, he would vote to accept free equipment for the county. “I didn’t realize how it would he misused in the community.”

Reginald Crowley of Copake, the county Stop DWI coordinator, said, “I am not a fan of militarized police, but they have to get home safely.”

As for other police activities, Mr. Tracy called SWAT teams a necessity. “There are situations that call for it.” But he added, “No-knock warrants are a recipe for disaster, as we have seen.”

Sergeant Daniel Jablanski of Hudson, who “did 38 years in the Department of Corrections, the last 12 as a supervisor,” said choke-holds should be illegal.

But Trevor Slowinski of Hudson said: “Some choke-holds should be banned,” but not those that when “applied correctly” do not “restrict the blood flow.”

In addition, Mr. Slowinski said, “In some cases a knockout can be necessary.”

Several participants brought up “resource allocation,” while Mr. Tracy said outright, “I am not in favor of defunding” the police.

Ms. Fecher suggested additional resources for assist police officers responding to domestic violence, mental health crises and troubled youth.

“Do you want a social worker coming to your house?” asked Sgt. Jablanski.

“Cut the fat and do what is necessary to get needed training,” suggested Ms. Coutsonikas.

Speakers had different ideas for educating police. Mr. Hughes encouraged “bias training,” and Ms. Coutsonikas called for “training on cultural and socioeconomic differences is a necessity. Not everybody is brought up the same.”

But bias training alone “might not do it,” said Rev. Singletary. Training should focus more in public safety and less on law enforcement, she said. It should also include trauma, including child trauma. “Some training can be outsourced to the community,” she said.

Training is a priority, said Mr. Slowinski, especially restraining and grabbing techniques.

Ms. Fecher said police officers should have mentors “to provide roll models.” They should be required to have a bachelor’s degree that would include courses like psychology, sociology, and interpersonal communications.

Participants also spoke of the need to screen applicants carefully before they become police officers and monitoring them once they start work.

At the interview stage “they need to weed out potential bad apples before they are hired, and maybe we won’t end up with some if the folks that people have complained about,” said Mr. Mormando.

“It’s very important to ‘disqualify’ persons who exhibit aggressive racist, misogynistic, and other inappropriate behavior,” said Ms. Fecher.

Police officers should be subject to dismissal for misconduct, said Ms. Fecher.

Sheriff Bartlett noted that disciplinary complaints against officers are kept on record. The more “major” the complaint, the higher up the chain of command it goes.

Some participants advocated educating the public on how to act with the police. “Currently, if people see something, they don’t tell the police,” Mr. Crowley said.

“People don’t know their rights,” said Ms. Sears.

“We need public education rather than police education,” insisted Mr. Mormando. “I was taught to respect the uniform.” He suggested, if you have an interaction with the police, do what the officer tells you. You can raise your objections later, he said. “If there is an injury or death, it is usually because someone did not listen to the police.”

Some noted hardships police officers face. “You would find more people interested in becoming police, if police did not have to put up with such abuse,” said Mr. Mormando.

Mr. Crowley said police are “out-weaponized” and they have to make split-second decisions.

“The convening of this committee is not an indictment of the law enforcement community,” said Mr. Hughes. “To right our social justice, we need to look at not only law enforcement but also the courts and justice system.”

“This is our home. Make it the safest home we have,” said Sheriff Bartlett.

The Community Input panel will have more video conferences livestreamed on November 5 and November 13 at 6:00 pm.

The Police Reform Panel’s website is at sites.google.com/columbiacountyny.com/police-reform-panel.

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