County and state try to calm the cries for police reform: Local police departments say they’re prepared to meet state mandates
DUTCHESS COUNTY — Calls for radical change — namely police reform — and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement seem to be at their height these days, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, last month, at the hands of a White former police officer. Weeks of protests have called on police agencies across the country to be defunded.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has since issued the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Executive Order to address the issue. Cuomo said “urgent and immediate action is needed to eliminate racial inequities in policing, to modify and modernize policing strategies, policies, procedures and practices, and to develop practices to better address the particular needs of communities of color to promote public safety, improve community engagement and foster trust.”
Cuomo concluded the Division of the Budget can make the criminal justice system more effective by having local police departments get community approval of its operations in order to get state funding.
The governor is requiring any municipality with its own police agency to conduct a comprehensive review of that agency’s policies, procedures, practices, strategies and deployments, and then develop a plan to improve those procedures to address community needs, promote community engagement and “address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”
The head of the municipality, be it the mayor, town supervisor, etc., will be required to meet with the police agency and “community stakeholders” to develop said plan. Stakeholders may include local police force members and leaders, community members, local elected officials, interested nonprofit and faith-based community groups, etc. Their plans may include, but are not limited to, addressing systematic racial bias or racial justice in policing; de-escalation training and practices; violence prevention and reduction interventions; community-based outreach and conflict resolution; and so on, according to Cuomo’s order.
After the plan is developed, it must be presented for public comment and then to the local legislative body for adoption no later than April 1, 2021. Following its adoption, the onus is upon local governments to transmit a certification of the plan to the director of the Division of the Budget, which will have the authority to dole out future state or federal funds to the police agencies.
Banning chokeholds, requiring cameras
Cuomo also signed a ban on police chokeholds in New York on Saturday, June 13. On Tuesday, June 16, he signed legislation to require all officers to wear body cameras while on patrol. Also created was the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office, which will review and make recommendations for enhancing the effectiveness of law enforcement as well as increasing public safety, protecting civil liberties and civil rights and increasing the public’s confidence in law enforcement.
County takes action
Dutchess County Legislator Gregg Pulver (R-19) spoke of the county’s intent to review “every single policy of every single police department in Dutchess County” at a non-partisan social justice gathering at the Pine Plains clock tower on Sunday, June 14.
County Executive Marc Molinaro addressed their approach during a Telephone Town Hall on Wednesday, June 24.
“We start from a good foundation of law enforcement agencies in the county that have a lot of comprehensive policies,” Molinaro said, praising the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office for providing comprehensive training on de-escalation, use of force and implicit bias. “However, this is an important moment for soul searching… in ensuring that every citizen, regardless of race, color or creed, has equal protection under the law. The public demands that we take the time to evaluate where we are and all of our police agencies want to do this in a collaborative way to make sure we’re protecting everyone and with the desire to be better at what they do.”
During the next few weeks, Molinaro said the county will provide the public a chance to share its thoughts. He expects all county police agencies to develop a policy statement, hopefully between October and April in order to meet Cuomo’s timeline.
Local departments weigh in
At the Millerton Village Board meeting on Monday, June 15, Millerton Police Officer-in-Charge Michael Veeder announced that the Millerton Police Department is working on a refresher course in de-escalation training and defensive tactics, adding one of his officers is certified to instruct the department. In response to Village Trustee Matthew Hartzog’s questions regarding how often Millerton officers take crisis intervention training (CIT), Veeder explained any officer who enters the police academy goes through CIT training. Veeder added the state offers that training annually.
Addressing a question from the public regarding having only the Millerton Police respond to calls from within the village, Veeder remarked that the Millerton Police Department is only a part-time agency.
“When we’re on, you know, we’re here unless we’re tied up on a call,” Veeder said. “We would love to be here 24/7, but when we’re not, the state and Sheriff’s Office handle all the calls here.”
Mayor Debbie Middlebrook said the Millerton Police use both body cameras and dashboard cameras, which she said benefit the police as well as civilians. To date, there are seven officers in the Millerton Police Department.
“I was really pleased to hear that the county was going to take that initiative in an effort to make sure all the police departments in Dutchess County are following the same guidelines,” Middlebrook said. “I think it’s great that it’s going to be one set of guidelines through the entire county and that will be all of the local police departments as well as the sheriff’s department.”
Amenia town Supervisor Victoria Perotti agreed that a county-wide approach makes sense.
“I think it’s a very good idea to review policies and improve them in order to make them better for the future,” said Perotti, adding that the town of Amenia utilizes the New York State Police and Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office for its police services. It also has a part-time town constable.
Calling it “the incredible gift of living in a small town,” Pine Plains town Supervisor Darrah Cloud underlined her town’s good fortune in having its own police force, with a stake in how the community functions and in keeping residents safe. Totaling five officers, she said most of them — including Officer-in-Charge John Hughes — grew up in Pine Plains and are currently raising their families in town.
“I feel we’re very fortunate to have our own police force so we can control what happens in Pine Plains,” Cloud said. “There’s a fair amount of hardship here and there’s behavior that comes out of hardship and it really helps to be from here and to know the history of the people here.”
Along with voicing confidence in her department’s ability to treat everyone equally while enforcing the law, Cloud said she appreciates the county’s help reviewing the town’s use of force policy. While it currently has a strong workplace violence policy that Pulver helped craft with the rest of the Town Board when he was town supervisor in 2011, Cloud said now is the perfect time to revisit its police manual.
Regarding its policies, Hughes said the Pine Plains Police Department is presently updating its manual as are many other police agencies in Dutchess County. All training procedures are typically put out through the Dutchess County Federation of Chiefs, he added, noting nothing is on tap at this time.
When asked if he is concerned about losing state funding, as threatened by the governor if police agencies don’t regroup by next April, Hughes replied, “Not really… This training has got to go countywide — we have to be the same as Millerton, we have to be the same as Millbrook, we have to be the same as Poughkeepsie. It has to be one uniform law… it’s going to be the same, but different.”
However, Hughes said officers often have to make split-second decisions, stressing that every circumstance is different. For example, when an officer is taking someone into custody, he said some people will comply and others will put up a fight. Locally, Hughes said most individuals comply. In fact, he said the Pine Plains Police have never had to deploy one of their tasers or had a use of force case leveled against the department.
Meanwhile, Millbrook Police Officer-in-Charge Jared Witt said the Millbrook Police Department is “absolutely confident in protecting and serving the people in this day and age. We are also confident in the oaths we took to uphold the Constitution of the United States and that of the state of New York.”
As far as updating and refreshing its use of force policies, Witt said the Millbrook Police Department will be working closely with the county and meeting with other chiefs of police and officers in charge on the project.
“It’s a state mandate, so we all have to do it,” he said.
Considering what it means to be a police officer in this day and age, Witt mused, “We leave our families to come out and protect and serve everyone else to the best that we can. It’s what we do, it’s why we got into this profession and I love it and I’ll continue to do it. Myself and the officers deployed by Millbrook are some of the best people out there and we’re going to continue to hold ourselves to those standards and continue to perform that way.”