Governor Andrew Cuomo’s June 12 executive order, the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative acknowledges New York’s ugly history of bigotry. It goes on to recognize that awful things continue to happen to unarmed citizens and orders local governments to conduct thorough reviews of each law enforcement agency’s “deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices.” Governments are ordered to include community, nonprofit, and faith-based groups in the review process alongside law enforcement and elected officials, and the results are to be offered to all citizens for public comment.
“This is a unique time of opportunity,” says Ulster County Human Rights Commissioner Tyrone Wilson. “Cuomo has sent this reform down and the way I see it, he took power out of police hands and put it in community hands. He mandates community forums and requires each government to come up with a police reform policy at all levels that addresses community concerns. It doesn’t happen without the community’s input; it has to be achieved by April 1, 2021, and the brilliant part is, if you don’t do it they’ll take away funding.”
The 15-member Ulster County Justice and Reform Commission is ordered to convene by the end of June. Headed by County Attorney Clint Johnson, it’s tasked with holding public forums over the next few months to guide the creation of specific policy and legislative reforms that will “ensure justice for every resident and drive needed reforms in the criminal justice system.”
“(County Executive) Pat Ryan did a good job putting the personnel together and we will have forums,” Wilson promises. “Maybe more than two, because of the pandemic; we need to get at least a few hundred people in and give them the opportunity to have input. It needs to be face to face, not online—maybe we can spread people out outdoors, it’s beautiful out right now.”
When Cuomo’s executive order arrived, Rochester’s Town Board (in Kerhonkson and Accord) had already been in the process of reviewing the policies and procedures of its nine-member constabulary. The Town of Rochester, which receives some police coverage from both state troopers and county sheriffs, has had a Constabulary since 1710; a case could be made that the process of review and renegotiation has probably been taking place ever since.
Rochester’s nine constables are under the direction of Chief Constable Richard Miller, who likes to describe himself as “Andy of Mayberry” in conversations with the local papers. In March of 2019, the Town Board passed two resolutions intended to clarify the job description after some said that the constables were exceeding their authority.
The resolution empowered the constables, who Miller characterizes as working within the community to resolve disputes and “personal problems,” to carry out warrantless arrests, issue tickets, and “exercise any other power which a particular peace officer is otherwise authorized to exercise by any general, special, or local law, or charter rule, regulations judgment or order whenever acting pursuant to his or her special duties provided such power is not inconsistent with the provisions of the Penal Law.” Constables also serve as security at Rochester Town Court.
Besides a personable chief, the Rochester Constabulary has its own personal “cop watch” group on Facebook, with 296 followers and a penchant for Barney Fife GIFs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Town Board’s granting of comprehensive policing powers to the constabulary did not resolve the issue in the eyes of those who had already felt that they had been over-policing Rochester.
The town retained consultant Peter Volkmann in November to prepare an analysis of the constabulary’s functions and policies. Volkmann, currently Chief of Police in the Town of Chatham, returned a report by the March 5 Rochester meeting.
The conversation moved forward at the June 4 regular meeting, when Town Supervisor Mike Baden proposed that two locals with law enforcement background, retired FBI Special Agent Gerald Fornino and retired New Paltz Police Sergeant Ron Lapp, review Volkmann’s report. Council Member Erin Enouen said she had no problem with Lapp and Fornino weighing in, but didn’t believe that the process should end there, offering to organize a community forum so that the general public could have a say.
“So what I get from what you said is, we have two men on the committee with more years in service than you have been alive, and you still want to bring it to the public again?” asked Council Member Bea Haugen-Depuy. Enouen responded that she believed it would be great to have broader community input.
“We are in the unique position of having peace officers,” said Council Member Chris Hewitt (full disclosure: our publisher), “and America needs a true example right now from a small town like ours. Here is our opportunity. It would be wonderful to have a community forum. I know Human Rights Commissioner Tyrone Wilson, County Legislator Lynn Archer, real nonviolence trainers—Gerry and Ron are good choices, but we need to go much further.”
Haugen-Depuy said that the constables were suffering from what she perceived as unfair persecution from a small, but vocal contingent. “They have been put down so many times we are going to lose all of them if we keep putting them under a microscope,” she said. “Volkmann’s report was to be the be-all, end-all, now you want to make these men do all this?”
“Why two men anyway?” Hewitt wondered aloud. “Can we get a woman on this committee?”
Haugen-Depuy suggested that if the board felt like adding another step to the process, the sensible thing to do would be to hold a referendum on whether the town wanted to have any constables at all. Supervisor Baden pointed out that if such a referendum were held and the town voted to keep its constabulary, the board would be stuck beginning the re-evaluation process all over again anyway.
At a special meeting on June 17, Council Member Enouen introduced a resolution to require community input. The resolution ended up being tabled, but in the wake of Cuomo’s executive order (which doesn’t technically apply to constabularies), Haugen-Depuy agreed that a panel will be informative. [The resolution passed unanimously at the town’s July 6 meeting.]
Still, the conversation deepened. Haugen-Depuy suggested that youth and inexperience were placing an undue burden on officers who had “nothing to do with Mr. Floyd.” But she acknowledged that fulfilling the spirit of the Governor’s mandate would be wise. “The governor wants a panel, a panel should come,” she allowed.
The committee reviewing Volkmann’s work has been increased to three, with the third being retired NYPD Detective Ann Marie Maloney. “We can work through this and get a plan, and the committee can really help us with the policies and procedures,” said Baden.
Meanwhile, in Rosendale
Police and organizers worked well together on logistics of a June 27 Black Lives Matter rally in Rosendale, until the day arrived and Rosendale Police Chief Scott Schaffrick took the stage. There, to the disappointment of the crowd, he declined to say “Black Lives Matter” or to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in policing.
In an email exchange two days before the event, Schaffrick expressed the belief that Rosendale had a handle on community policing. “I welcome the input of our community stake-holders, and hope that in their review of our policies, we continue to move law enforcement forward.”
About 400 marchers circled Rosendale with giant puppet-portraits of deceased victims of police violence, created by Redwing Blackbird artist Amy Trompetter, saying their names. Despite a counter-demonstrator posturing with motorcycle, flag facemask, and “White Lives Matter” signage, the crowd made itself heard.
Life and Death
“Our role on the commission is to take information from the community, listen to suggestions, and come back to the table with data,” says Wilson. “Nothing will happen without the community….A lot of important stuff is already in the rules, it just needs to be implemented. And we got 50A (a law shielding police officers’ disciplinary records from the public) repealed—that’s huge.”
“I have been hands-on in this struggle for a long time now. I’m interested in hearing the other side’s point of view, see where their mindset is at, but there is no negotiation on certain things. We need people whose job is simply to keep people safe. The power needs to be in the people’s hands; this is a service we pay for with our taxes. Some will try to put fear in us, but people aren’t trying to hear that right now. People who want the world to be right are the majority, not the minority, and as we all realize that it will blow the whole money machine right out the window.”
“I’m hopeful. I’m grateful for the opportunity God’s given me to stand up for the oppressed. I am still part of that group—for a Black man it’s not optional. Some things, nonviolence and respect, are non-negotiable. We can’t afford to miss the mark on this. And if anybody doesn’t realize it’s life and death, they need to get out of the way.”