HUDSON—The Columbia County Police Reform Panel discussed preparing police officers to handle people with disabilities, substance abuse issues or limited English, as well as youth recruitment, diversity, police accountability, courts, and body camera data storage, at its Elected Officials/Law Enforcement conference January 19.
County Sheriff David Bartlett said that he was going to mandate that his deputies take courses in how to recognize certain disabilities and talk to people with them. In some situations, he said, “You could very well deescalate just by knowing how to speak to the people.”
Supervisor Sarah Sterling (Hudson, 1st Ward) reported a suggestion that county Sheriff’s Office deputies visit group homes for people with disabilities. This would benefit both the residents of these homes and the deputies. Both would get to see each other as individual human beings and not as characters on TV or people with labels.
“We go down to Camphill every now and then, and it’s a wonderful facility,” the sheriff said.
Police training should also include a special section on substance abuse, said Beth Schuster, executive director of Twin County Recovery Services. “When you are coming across someone for the first time, and they may be impaired by something, I think it’s important to know what the different substances are, how they make people act, and how to deescalate” the situation. “There’s a number of people in my agency who could provide that kind of training,” she said.
Substance abuse often ends up classified as a mental health issue. But some people who abuse substances have no other mental health issue, Ms. Schuster pointed out.
Sheriff Bartlett reported suggestions that the Civil Service test for sheriff’s deputies give extra points to people fluent in certain foreign languages. When the Sheriff’s Office has an opening for a new deputy, the state requires that only the three candidates with the highest scores on the Civil Service test be considered. Automatically increasing the score of those candidates who speak a foreign language increases the chance of hiring a deputy who can speak directly to some minority populations, such as Spanish-speaking farm workers, without relying on Language Line.
One approach to getting a more diverse police force is to identify youths in underrepresented populations who have or could develop an interest in police work. Ms. Sterling suggested starting a scholarship fund for training.
William Hughes, co-chair of the Police Reform Panel, said potential candidates need training before they take the Civil Service test. He suggested identifying some potential future police officers as high school freshmen and contacting them at that age. He said that creates an opportunity to coach them against doing something that would disqualify them from becoming a police officer later, such as committing certain offenses or getting certain tattoos.
But getting young people interested in police work today is difficult, said Sheriff Bartlett. “When I went to Zone 14 Law Enforcement Academy at Columbia-Greene Community College, I probably had 30 people in my class. Now we’re looking at seven or eight because people don’t want to be cops, with what’s going on.”
‘You could very well deescalate just by knowing how to speak to the people.’
Sheriff David Bartlett
The problems faced by police agencies also affect other government departments in the Civil Service system. “It’s getting harder and harder to find younger individuals who want to enter the county work force,” commented Dan Almasi, interim director of Community Services.
Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson said he had talked to some men in their 20s who are interested in the Sheriff’s Office and wondered where they could get information about requirements and applying for training.
Sheriff Bartlett said he would love to discuss the topic with the mayor.
Supervisor Jeanne Mettler of Copake suggested that the Sheriff’s Office website include information and links for people considering becoming a deputy.
Concerning police accountability, Sheriff Bartlett said that there had been discussion of an online complaint form because some people were afraid to come to the office.
Supervisor Sterling said some people would be afraid to fill out that form too. “The fear of retribution is real. We need to have a safe harbor place where someone can go anonymously and get support from supervisors or an official.”
Supervisor Tistrya Houghtling of New Lebanon supported the idea of a civilian review board for police conduct. But she said the only such boards she researched that seemed to be successful have subpoena power.
A civilian review board cannot interfere with a district attorney’s duty to investigate criminal activity that occurs in the county, said Assistant District Attorney Ryan Carty.
Ms. Houghtling spoke of the need to educate towns to look to courts for justice, not for revenue. She said in many towns judges feel pressured to set unjustly high fines “because the town is depending on them for revenue.”
Sheriff Bartlett reported that the body cameras for deputies have arrived though the Sheriff’s Office still needs the software and installation. ADA Carty warned that storing video recordings from the cameras could get expensive. The video recordings would come not only from deputies but also from the Hudson City Police Department.
Sheriff Bartlett said that the Axon camera system the county is purchasing comes with “unlimited cloud storage.” Mr. Carty confirmed that the DA’s office would have access to the recordings and would have to provide that data to all defense attorneys. “It’s a lot of storage that has to be undertaken,” Mr. Carty said.
Also at the conference:
• Sheriff Bartlett said he always tells police academy students that “one of the best tools” is talking
• The sheriff announced that will be president of the State Sheriff’s Association this year
• A town supervisor recommended the police use “less military equipment, less SWAT-style raids” and fewer or no no-knock warrants
• Sheriff Bartlett said the Sheriff’s Office has not worked with the ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency) for years
One person suggested the county hire a public relations person to assist all departments.