Officials await word on police review plans

Nearly a month after the April 1 deadline to submit written plans in accordance with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 203, the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, the leaders of many local municipalities said they have yet to receive feedback or guidance from the state, and wonder if they should expect any at all.

The fiscal year 2022 enacted budget, passed April 7 by the state Legislature, authorized the Division of Budget to withhold up to 50% of state and federal funds from jurisdictions that failed to produce a police reform plan in compliance with the executive order.

The terms of the budget also require state Attorney General Letitia James, if directed by Gov. Cuomo, to install a monitor at the municipality’s expense until a plan has been submitted.

As of 4 p.m. April 1, with eight hours to go before the deadline, state budget spokesman Freeman Klopott reported that plans had been submitted by 430 of the approximately 500 municipalities covered by the order.

“We’re very pleased with how the process went and we’re very proud of the outcome,” Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig said. 

Herzig said that neither he nor former Oneonta Police Chief Doug Brenner, who retired in January, or acting chief Lt. Christopher Witzenburg, who has since taken over the 25-member department, sat on the city’s community advisory board.

“We really took it to heart that this should be a citizen-driven, community-driven initiative,” he said. “We let them go and control the direction. They were not led by the police, they were not led by me.”

The initial array of committee members formed four distinct subcommittees, each tasked with examining and reviewing different aspects of the city’s police department, including policy and procedure, training and use of force.

“Anybody who wanted to be a part of the subcommittees could be,” Herzig said. “Nobody was turned away.”

The subcommittees produced a “wide-ranging diversity of recommendations,” Herzig said, but noted that “implementation might be more complicated.”

The advisory board tasked the Common Council with implementing the reforms by June 1, ensuring the plan was submitted in time for the April 1 deadline.

“To the extent possible, we’re going to implement all the recommendations,” Herzig said. “In some cases, state law, civil service requirements and resource availability limited what could be done, but whenever possible, Council should respect the spirit of the recommendations.”

Cuomo issued supplementary guidance to the Executive Order in August, directing each participating municipality to hold a public forum on its draft plan as a means of soliciting feedback from its residents.

No one participated in the public hearings held by the villages of Oxford, Greene and the town of Colchester.

“We had no response from the public whatsoever, but that’s pretty typical of our public,” Colchester Town Supervisor Art Merrill said.

About 5% of the town’s 2,000 full-time residents participated in an online survey on Colchester police practices and community issues, according to Merrill. “They were all pretty positive about having a police force.”

The responses highlighted a common concern about local instances of domestic violence and drug use, Merrill said. “That’s pretty typical of around here, and the pandemic didn’t help.”

The Colchester Police Department employs two full-time officers and four or five part-time officers, providing about 100 hours of coverage a week, Merrill said.

Upon a careful review of the department’s policies and procedures, Merrill said, committee members “all agreed that what we need to do is make sure our men are able to get whatever trainings are available as they come up.”

Merrill, whose town encompasses large swaths of land owned by the state and New York City, said he took issue with the exemption of state law enforcement agencies from the requirements of the executive order.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a bit hypocritical on their part,” he said. “The State Police need the review just as much as anybody.”

Sherburne Mayor William Acee said a survey of village residents found that “they wanted more community outreach and interaction with the public from their officers.”

The village employs six part-time officers and continuously struggles with funding and staffing the department, Acee said. 

“We didn’t have any negative responses with regard to any type of race or gender bias,” he said. “We were in very good shape, but of course, we’re a very small community.”

Greene Mayor Philip Brown reported similar findings from the survey on the village’s five-member police department.

“Being a small community, the officers are out in the public,” Brown said. “The crime rate and the problems in the village are very small, but our residents suggested the officers try to get out more and collaborate with the public, which is something I’ve always supported as mayor.”

Included in the committee’s recommendations was increasing the police presence in schools, Brown said. “In the event the kids need help or are looking for that person they can talk to or lean on, they’re not surprised by who it is.”

Oxford Mayor Terry Stark said he formed the village’s police reform and review committee by asking for volunteers and stakeholders from the community, including representation from senior citizens and business owners.

“Oxford’s a small place. We don’t have a large minority population, so we tried to be as diverse as possible,” he said. “If we were a big city and had a larger body to draw from for more diversity, we would have.” 

The committee’s seven members met weekly and plan to continue, at least quarterly, Stark said. “Our police department thought this was helpful and wanted to keep it going.”

The committee reviewed the five-member police department’s policies regarding officer conduct, use of force and weapons and incorporated feedback from the 35 to 40 responses to the community survey in its final plan, Stark said.

“We found that residents felt that our police should be a little more visible, so we’re going to be increasing foot patrols and launch a ‘coffee with a cop’ program,” he said.

Village officials also committed to work with the county and school-based mental health programs, based on survey respondents’ reported problems with mental health, drug abuse, burglary, petty theft and domestic violence throughout the community.

“I think a lot of people felt those national issues — race and brutality and bias — don’t apply to Oxford,” Stark said. “Somehow, we have to get past that and say there’s always room for improvement.”

The village of Afton’s police reform committee had a similar discussion, according to Mayor Janice Nickerson.

“With the rest of what’s going on in the country, it doesn’t really fit tiny little Afton,” she said. “We worked really hard at tailoring the policies to fit our community rather than a big city.”

The committee of residents and members of the police department discussed how to train officers “if bias was an issue” and “how to address difficult situations,” Nickerson said.

“I’m really proud of what they did,” she said. “Everybody worked so hard.”

Hancock Mayor Carolann McGrath said complying with the state mandate was “a big waste of time.”

“This has been a bone of contention for me,” she said. “If we were a big city, it would make sense, but we’re a small little community. I personally think it’s ridiculous that small towns with two police officers had to do this.”

“I had several meetings and I did the best I could,” she continued. “It was approved by the board of trustees and it was approved by the district attorney. It’s a waste of time, but I did it.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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