HUDSON—The Columbia County Police Reform Panel focused its February 3 discussion on what the Police Reform Plan under preparation must include and emphasize, while noting that some reforms require the involvement of departments other than law enforcement.
In the wake of tragic encounters nationwide between police officers and people of color last year, Governor Cuomo ordered each local government with a police force to deliver police improvement plans by April 1 of 2021. To develop such a plan, Columbia County formed a Police Reform Panel, which has had several meetings since October 2020. The panel covers the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and the Greenport, Philmont, and Stockport police. The Village of Chatham and the City of Hudson are preparing its their own plans.
February 3 meeting participants viewed an outline of the county plan. Matt Murrell (R-Stockport), chairman of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, said he would like the document completed by March 1, and disseminated to the public in time for a public hearing March 8, so the full Board of Supervisors can vote on it March 10.
The plan’s overview page must include the acknowledgment that individuals of certain races are more likely to face arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment than those of other races, declared Supervisor Jeanne Mettler, (D-Copake). African Americans in Columbia County make up 5% of the population but 24% of the arrests and 34% of the felony arrests, she said.
“The only reason we’re here is because there’s a disparity in the policing of Black and Brown people,” said Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson (D).
Acknowledging this in the overview would give the report more credibility and acceptance, added Ms. Mettler. “I think that people would feel that they were heard.”
“There should be a statement about how we as a county don’t accept systemic racism,” said Mayor Johnson.
The plan should also clarify both long- and short-term-goals, said Supervisor Tistrya Houghtling (D-New Lebanon.) She suggested including a “blanket statement” that for any proposal considered long term, “we’re open to implementing sooner if we get the funding. We don’t want to look like we’re putting it off.” In addition, each short-term goal should have a specific time frame.
Several meetings have touched on the mental health of people police officers confront, but on February 3, Austerlitz Supervisor Robert Lagonia asked about securing funds for the mental health of the officers themselves. Aspiring police officers undergo thorough psychological screening before being hired, and people might enter the police force mentally just fine. However, after years of stressful work with exposure to trauma, they could need psychological re-evaluation, noted Beth Schuster, executive director of Twin County Recovery Services.
Sheriff David Bartlett (R) said his office needed a good Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and had used other counties’ programs.
Ms. Schuster recommended that substance abuse have its own section in the plan so that its unique challenges do not get lost among others classified as mental health.
Supervisor Abdus Miah (D-Hudson 2nd Ward), called for putting in the plan that the police will not get involved in immigration issues or with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in arresting immigrants.
Sheriff Bartlett said that ICE has not asked for his help in a long time, and he is not notified when the agency is in the county.
Ms. Houghtling said it is important that the goals of the plan include limiting no-knock warrants and not using military equipment. Even when the Sheriff’s Office is already following these guidelines, the plan has to include it to guide future policies.
When the subject of hiring a more diverse police force came up, the sheriff said he is required by the state to consider only the three applicants with the top scores on the Civil Service exam. “We have reached out to legislators about changing the Civil Service system,” he said.
Meeting participants mentioned non-profit organization that may offer to arrange scholarships for police-officer training.
‘There should be a statement about how we as a county don’t accept systemic racism.’
Mayor Kamal Johnson
City of Hudson
Ms. Schuster recommended that the end of the plan summary should contain the statement: “This plan is not the be all and end all.” Some new programs need study and development that will last beyond the day the plan is submitted. Some aspects of increasing equality and fairness are the responsibility of departments other than law enforcement.
The police departments have enough work ahead of them on aspects that are their responsibility, said David Harrison, Jr., county Director of Emergency Management. “We’re not trying to change the entire system,” he said.
One new program on which work will continue beyond the plan’s submission is civilian review boards of police conduct, Ms. Houghtling and Ms. Mettler said. More time is needed to study what other communities are doing and what works.
An example of the responsibility of other departments is what happens after a person is arrested. To end racial disparity requires reform of courts and the prosecution system, Mr. Harrison said.
When Ms. Houghtling recommended that someone picked up on drug charges should go into diversion and treatment instead of the law enforcement system, Mr. Lagonia said, “Law enforcement makes arrests. Whether to send someone to jail, diversion, drug court, or mental health treatment is up to the DA or judge.”
“I don’t see how to pick out someone for diversion,” said Sheriff Bartlett. If he diverts someone, somebody else prosecuted for the same infraction will feel: Hey, why wasn’t I diverted?
“Even in the court system, there’s a level of subjectivity when it comes to who gets hit with a criminal penalty versus who gets diverted,” said Dan Almasi, acting director of community services. He urged creation of an objective framework with decisions made more consistently.
The sheriff recommended considering not only deputies but the jail’s correction officers as well.
A Police Reform Panel conference to review the Police Reform Plan was scheduled for Thursday, February 11, at 6 p.m.