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County police reform hearing eyes Millerton

MILLERTON — Members of the Millerton Village Board said they were impressed by the number of community members who tuned in to share their thoughts on the Dutchess County Police Reform efforts during a virtual public hearing held on Monday, Feb. 8.

Cuomo’s Executive Order

Working in conjunction with the Executive Order (EO) that Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted last June on the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, Dutchess County assembled a group of stakeholders to create a unified, county-wide law enforcement plan. The EO mandated that all municipalities statewide work with their police departments and conduct a comprehensive review of policies, procedures, practices and strategies and develop a plan to improve them. 

The goal? To address their communities’ needs, promote community engagement and “address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.” The call for police reform was a direct result of the social justice movement that took off across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn., at the hands of an ex-white cop. Cuomo gave communities an April 1 deadline; those that don’t come up with a police reform plan by then risk losing state funding.

The EO calls for municipal leaders to meet with police agency heads and community stakeholders to develop the reform plan, to then present to their communities for public comment, then to their local legislative body to ratify or adopt no later than that April 1 deadline. 

Millerton officials informed village residents on the municipal website, www.villageofmillerton.net, the Feb. 8 public hearing would be the only meeting on the topic prior to the adoption of the Millerton Police Department’s reform plan. The meeting was held via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic at 6 p.m. and live streamed to the “Village of Millerton VOM” Facebook; it can be viewed now.

The public hearing

Mayor Debbie Middlebrook explained the hearing was a special meeting for the board to listen to public comment with regard to the EO  outlined by the governor. She noted Millerton’s police reform document isn’t yet completed and this was just one step in the process rather than the end of the process. Village Clerk Kelly Kilmer said each speaker was limited to three minutes.

Public comments

Millerton resident Daniel Goldenhagen said he participated in the county police reform plan workgroup. He said it was difficult not knowing what currently exits in terms of local police procedures. He shared that one of the key areas discussed focused on police officer recruitment and training, and one point that stood out was how often the county recruits people with military backgrounds. Goldenhagen said these warrior/protector mentalities are key qualities to look for when recruiting officers.

Speaking from his role as a member of the Dutchess County Commission on Human Rights, Goldenhagen said police departments should have a better understanding of how to deal with hate crimes, not only in Millerton but throughout the county. Just as local municipalities hold annual sexual harassment training, he recommended ongoing training for racial discrimination and hate crimes — and how officers deal with such situations.

After disclosing her family’s involvement in law enforcement and her own support for statewide police reform, Millerton resident Meg Winkler shared her belief that the Village Board has been tasked with an “extremely important obligation to fulfill, not only representing the people of the village but also the town of North East.” 

However, she said she still didn’t understand why the village runs the police department “when it only covers 0.6 square miles, versus a town that has approximately 46 square miles.” 

Though she supported using the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office police reform plan with some tweaking due to Millerton’s part-time police department and its “unusual” approach for policing the region, some of the main points Winkler said she’d like to see included in the village’s plan focused on transparency as well as continuing the recently-created joint village-town oversight police committee and creating a citizen oversight group between the village and the town.

She stressed the two municipalities need a tailor-made plan. 

“There is a need for a plan to be developed for communicating clear roles and responsibilities of local and county law enforcement,” Winkler said. “We need guidance.”

Millerton attorney Joshua Douglass weighed in, agreeing localized language is important.

“I think we can all work together to do what the EO expects us to do and has basically commanded us to do,” he said, “and I think the language as an attorney working out of Millerton is ‘must.’”

Millerton resident Jennifer Hand encouraged a close look at New York State’s guidance issued this past August, which encouraged “a very robust engagement with the public.”  

Millerton resident Brooke Lehman shared a positive experience she had with Millerton Police Officer David Rudin some years ago when he was the officer in charge. Lehman said she was heartened by his ethic around trying to create connections with the local youth rather than policing them in more traditional ways.

Though there were those with encouraging and positive feedback, the public hearing also heard from locals concerned with police who have made unnecessary traffic stops over the years and the department’s handling of minority populations. 

For more information on how the village of Millerton and the town of North East are dealing with reforming the Millerton Police Department, read this week’s story on their special meeting held on the subject on Wednesday, Feb. 10, on Page A2 and this week’s editorial on Page B4.

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