Delaware County’s police reform and reinvention committee met for a fourth time Friday, Feb. 12, to discuss the results of a community survey put out to local residents earlier this year on public interactions with and perceptions of the Delaware County Sheriff’s Department.
Bovina Town Supervisor and Delaware County Board of Supervisors Chairman Tina Molé, who leads the reform and reinvention committee, said the survey results reflected positively on the sheriff’s department and reinforced the county’s continued focus on mental health and substance-abuse issues among its residents.
Molé said she would introduce the committee’s recommendations at the next county board meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 24, so that a public hearing on the matter may be held at the county board meeting after that, scheduled for Wednesday, March 10.
“The results of this survey suggest things are going pretty well, but I don’t think that should deter us from creating these robust policies,” said Simon Purdy, a professor of criminal justice at SUNY Delhi who helped draft the survey.
Discussing the survey results along racial lines, Purdy noted that only 23 of the 645 respondents identified as people of color.
“It’s hard to draw solid conclusions there because we had such a tiny part of our sample that we were comparing,” he said.
The results showed a higher level of trust in the sheriff’s department among respondents who identified as people of color, Purdy said, and indicated that there was little difference in the rate at which white respondents reported being pulled over or arrested from the rate of people of color. Of the six total individuals who reported that they’d been arrested within the past year, half of them were African American or Hispanic, Purdy said.
“We potentially have some issue there, but it’s not at the point where I would say it’s statistically significant or seems to be some sort of large-scale issue,” Purdy said. “It’s something we need to keep in mind as we create these policies.”
“There seemed to be a small inequity among arrests and convictions of people of color than there were whites when you deal with the proportion of population,” said Joyce St. George, another professor of criminal justice at SUNY Delhi.
St. George said when she pointed out the inequity to DuMond in an email, he responded almost immediately, eager to investigate.
“I think that we need to put something in the report about race,” St. George said, referring to the final committee-drafted report that must be submitted to the state by April 1. “We have such an insignificant amount of people of color in this county, but people felt comfortable enough and felt it was important enough to mention.”
Speaking from her own experiences in traffic court, St. George noted that the majority of those present in the courtroom were people of color, largely disproportionate to the county’s majority-white population.
Delaware County public defender Joe Ermeti confirmed that St. George’s experience was “pretty common in a lot of the courts,” but that “not a lot of the ones I recall were sheriff’s department arrests.”
St. George suggested that many Delaware County residents may not distinguish between the law enforcement or criminal justice agencies with whom they are interacting when they report grievances.
“It’s hard to put your finger where it is. Is it the DA? Is it the police? Is it the judges? Is it the whole system? What is it? We don’t know,” St. Joyce said. “I think that’s something the whole country is grappling with.”
St. Joyce and Purdy both suggested the formation of a citizens’ review or oversight board connected to the sheriff’s department to hear and investigate complaints of unnecessary use of force or other potential misconduct.
“Other jurisdictions have done it, and a lot of the responses here seem to suggest that people don’t feel a big connection — they trust the sheriff’s office, but they might not know what’s going on there,” St. George said. “If we had a community element connected to our sheriff’s office, I think it would be good all around.”
“It’s not as easy as just forming up one of these boards,” DuMond said, noting that the issues potentially under scrutiny by such advisory panels could involve labor contracts and other formalities.
“There’s a distinctive difference between a sheriff’s office and a police department,” he said. “And some police departments, especially in more urban areas, can be riddled with problems and have a high degree of incidences and lawsuits and poor community interactions — certainly (oversight committees) have proven to be helpful in some of those communities.”
“A sheriff is an independently elected person — a constitutional person who is independently elected,” DuMond continued. “I feel I have the ultimate citizen review board: the board consists of 46,000 people here in Delaware County and they help me decide whether I’m going to keep my job every four years in an election, at the ballot box.”
“People who have experienced a situation that has been very difficult — they need to have somewhere to bring their grievance and get some remedy and at least be heard and communicated,” said Jessica Farrell, a member of the Delaware and Otsego chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Farrell suggested a continuation of the reform and reinvention committee, noting that based on survey responses, “people are fearful to address (mental health and substance abuse) issues.”
St. George added that such a body could offer a form of mediation between civilians and the sheriff’s department.
“Just because we don’t seem to have those problems now doesn’t mean they won’t arise in the future,” Purdy agreed. “I think some type of forum needs to exist.”
“There’s no one that wants to get to the bottom of that more than me,” DuMond said, adding that he would be open to reviewing proposals for an advisory or mediation body of some sort.
Full results of the survey are expected to be made available to the public on the Delaware County website and in the “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative” page on Facebook in the coming days.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.