Sheriff’s Office makes headway on ‘reinvention’

HUDSON—Police actions that involve deaf people, Muslims, children (inadvertently), warrants, and the mental health of both civilians and officers, highlighted the Columbia County Police Reform Implementation Committee meeting July 5.

The meeting went through the 2021 Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan’s Procedural Justice and Community Policing section, which recommends approaching many challenges through training. It notes that members of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) and “partnering local police departments” undergo annual training in cultural sensitivity, ethics, anti-bias, and how to recognize systemic racism, as well as discrimination and harassment. There is also Bias Awareness Training. Groups designated for special attention including “minorities” and those with disabilities, dementia, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse problems or low incomes.

Nevertheless, committee member Dave Hall of Ancram reported hearing that deaf people have been stopped by police and cannot communicate with them.

County Sheriff Donald Krapf said training in sign language would be “fantastic,” but the police also need people who know sign language from the community to offer their services to the police. Sheriff Krapf recalled that when he was on patrol, he used to carry a card with signs (as well as the Miranda rights in Spanish), but it was up to individual deputies whether to carry them.

Now the Sheriff’s Office reported just receiving an 8-and-a-half inch by 11” sheet of symbols that people can point to “if there’s a language barrier or hearing issue.” They will be laminated and placed in each of the Sheriff’s Office vehicles.

Mr. Hall also asked whether anti-bias training includes an “educated view about Islam and Muslims,” because he said training about Islam has sometimes been “… biased and off mark.” People presenting themselves as “experts” go around the country speaking to law enforcement, he said. Adding, “and they’re not experts. In fact, they’re sort of professional Muslim haters.”

He suggested the local Muslim community could guide the committee and that he wanted to make sure the committee was being guided not by professed experts but by “actual Muslims.”

Undersheriff Jacqueline Salvatore responded that implicit bias training does not highlight any specific group. But she said, “We want to make sure that we are well versed in what our local community needs. So we’ll reach out to these people.”

Another item discussed dealt with warrants, raids and de-escalation of force.

Committee member William Hughes of Hudson noted that some no-knock and SWAT raids take place where children are. “Youths came to school traumatized,” he said. Schools have to pour resources into it.

The plan says that before acting on any warrant, a “threat assessment is done,” and one factor considered in this assessment is the presence of children.

Still, “We don’t always know if there is a child in the house,” said Sheriff Krapf.

Undersheriff Salvatore said, “Is it horrible for children? Absolutely.” But she asked is it not also horrible for children to grow up thinking that drug sales are a normal activity.

Meanwhile, “the average person is reading about botched raids around the country that end up in the deaths of innocent civilians,” said Mr. Hall. “I have a bad feeling about no-knock warrants. Who determines whether a warrant is regular or no-knock?”

The plan says, “No-knock warrants will be limited in use, and only used when authorized or directed by court order.” But not all warrants are requested by law enforcement. Sometimes a judge makes the decision and issues warrants, explained Robert Lagonia, co-chair of the committee and Austerlitz supervisor.

Some things are “beyond our control,” said Sheriff Krapf.

Over 99% of warrants are because of drugs or weapons, said Undersheriff Salvatore. “We can’t get the warrant signed unless these things are present. And sometimes we need an element of surprise.” Otherwise, suspects can flush evidence down the toilet.

“If the stuff is flushed down the toilet… it’s not on the street,” Mr. Hall pointed out.

“There have been knock warrants that have resulted in the death of a police officer,” said Sheriff Krapf.

“Most raids I’ve participated in have been at night, when people are asleep,” noted Undersheriff Salvatore.

Mr. Hughes said the previous sheriff said we didn’t have military equipment. But SWAT teams have been used. And “people wonder if SWAT team use is effective.”

The plan says all CCSO members are trained annually in De-escalation of Force, according to the state model last updated September 2020. Furthermore, “officers have training to help a situation if de-escalation fails,” said Sheriff Krapf.

Undersheriff Salvatore said the CCSO is trying to save money by seeing how other places handle situations and “bring together the best practices.

“We’re trying to have as much training as possible,” she said. But each person in training is one fewer person on the road.

“When officers work 16 hours a day, they’re not enthused about extra training,” the sheriff said.

The committee also discussed mental health and substance abuse issues: in both the people police officers encounter and the police officers themselves.

The plan says that all members of the CCSO and partnering local police departments receive annual mental health training and that CCSO is working with Columbia County Mental Health Department, Twin Counties Recovery Services, and Greener Pathways. “Use of Force… policies have been updated using the most recent NY State model policy guidelines,” according to the plan. When a subject is determined to have mental health issues and needs services, officers submit an electronic form “to the appropriate provider agency.”

Mental health can also be a concern for the officers themselves. “It is important that officers have proper resources, especially when we’re talking about mental health,” said Mr. Hughes. “They make life and death decisions on the street.”

State police have an Employee Assistance Program, and Undersheriff Salvatore reported she had reached out to the FBI regarding its program.

But several speakers observed that Columbia County has a shortage of mental health professionals. Those it does have are “stretched to the max” and unable to provide the level of care and services that a lot of people need, said the undersheriff.

The problem is not about funding, Mr. Lagonia said. The problem is finding people to apply to open advertised positions.

Mr. Hughes suggested sharing services with other counties.

The next meeting of the Columbia County Police Reform Implementation Committee will be Tuesday, August 2, at 10 a.m.

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