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Navigating Policing in New York

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Shantel Destra: Welcome to New York and Policing. I'm your host, Shantel Destra. With this show, we like to cover topics that have a connection to local or state government and look at things that your community can have a say on. This episode's topic, policing, is one that can be heavily impacted and influenced by local government, which is important as there are no national standards for policing in the US. It raises the question of what do communities want policing to look like?

In this episode, we'll go over the public perception of policing, what advocates want to change about policing, how the police view their role, and the ways that local government can have an impact on policing in the community.

Policing can be an incredibly polarizing topic with social movements like Black Lives Matter and Back the Blue becoming prominent elements of politics and culture. This is not a modern phenomenon, however, as tensions around policing have existed for as long as there has been racial inequality in the US, which is, well, the whole time, and racism is often a major crux of this issue.

Scholars tend to point to two origins of policing in the US. Some point to the creation of an official publicly funded police force in Boston in the 1830s. And others point to the various forms of patrolmen and watchmen in the 16 and 1700s who were often responsible for monitoring and controlling slave populations. Some advocates point to today's extra-judicial murders of people of color at the hands of police as an example of the legacy of historic racism that continues to play the nation. Other folks say, "Whoa, hold up. I just want someone around to protect me from being a victim of a crime."

So, where do New Yorkers stand? A 2020 Sienna Research Institute poll showed that 60% of New Yorkers believe that the killings of George Floyd and Rashard Brooks were part of a broader pattern of excessive police violence towards black people, and were not isolated instances. 60% of polled New Yorkers also supported the demonstrations happening state and nationwide at the time, such as the Rally for Black Lives, which saw over 11,000 people gather in downtown Troy on June 7th, 2020.

So at the time of that survey, a majority of New Yorkers believed that there was an issue with police violence, particularly against people of color, and more recent national polling shows a decrease in confidence that police treat black and white people equally.

Solutions to the problem of police misconduct are where things get more complex, as there are a lot of suggested ways to handle this issue, each with their own level of support and opposition. We reached out to Eva Bass, the executive director of A Village, an advocacy group that focuses on ways to support marginalized people in the Albany community. She believes that a form of community policing, which involves familiarizing officers with the members of the neighborhoods they serve, could be a way of having police departments improve their relationship with the community.

Eva Bass: South End, West Hill, Arbor Hill, North Albany, Sheridan Hollow. The reality is that the historic relationship between police and these types of neighborhoods is not very positive. We have police officers that are very great at community building, I would say, and, you know, creating relationships with the community members, but I think that that needs to be increased a lot. There are some police officers that are actually from this neighborhood or these neighborhoods in this community, so they're able to connect on a different level than police officers who do not reside or have any kind of connections or ties in the community. And I think that that's a very important thing to have. But I know it's very difficult on both ends because I know that, you know, the police have been looking to enroll more people from the community, but that has been a very long challenge to really get the community involved in police enforcement or law enforcement.

SD: Along with community policing, various forms of training are an often cited means to prepare police for the various types of situations they could encounter on the job. But when it comes to modifying the way police operate, it's important to consider the amount of responsibility that they are tasked with. Here's Chief David Keevern from North Green Bush PD with his thoughts.

Chief David Keevern: They're tasked with public safety, you know, enforcing the laws, but at the same time, they're also asked to attack things from more of a community-oriented perspective, which oftentimes comes in the form of being sometimes the armchair therapist or the armchair substance abuse counselor. We also, we respond to EMS calls, so... an officer can go from making an arrest to working with somebody on an EMS call and finding medical care. So we've kind of taken on roles in every avenue of public safety, you know, in a way that other entities haven't. Right now, we're dealing with a lot of mental health and substance abuse issues, and that's something that we traditionally really haven't had to deal with a lot, but now we have to, so we're increasing the treatment that we're doing for the officers and getting them better prepared. But again, they're asked to be the armchair psychologist or the armchair substance abuse counselor. This takes years for people to learn how to do. The officers can't possibly do that. There are people for those jobs. So, you know, it makes it very difficult and it's asking a lot of the officers to be able to do their job every day. But we do our best to try to stay on top of it, because ultimately, at the end of the day, the goal is to do better for the community.

SD: Another common proposed means of addressing both crime and police misconduct is with defunding, reducing or reallocating funds and resources from police budgets into social services instead. Alterations to police funding do not poll well with New Yorkers, but there's also a variety of ways that public safety resources could be allocated. We ask Eva Bass, her thoughts on police and criminal justice funding.

EB: I do believe that law enforcement should be properly paid. They do put their life on the line and definitely, you know, have showed up in a positive way despite any negative, you know, situations that we do have in our communities. But I think that what we need to do is look at how those resources are allocated. Are they just allocated straight to the police or are they allocated also to support initiatives and different departments to address the group causes of violence in certain issues in our community. For example, we have a large homeless or unhoused situation in our community, and instead of criminalizing, you know, we should invest in certain strategies to address it. We have a large opioid and drug issue in our community, and so we need to look at ways to not only make sure that the safety concerns are addressed, but also how are we trying to resolve those issues by creating positive programs or outlets.

SD: Many justice reform advocates want to address crime by looking at its causes instead of addressing it as or after it happens. But as we said earlier, alternate means of funding for criminal justice measures can be a very polarizing thing that attracts a variety of opinions. So it's up to each community to decide how they want to approach these things. On top of that, a lot of the issues that cause crime are large-scale structural issues that may need to be addressed at the state or even national level. But while the systemic issues intertwine with crime and policing, like housing insecurity and lack of mental health support affect all communities it's up to each community to figure out how they want the police to respond.

For the police's perspective on the matter, we spoke with Chief David Keevern.

DK: I'm a detractor of defund. I think at first the intent was, well, we have police officers doing things that we should have social workers doing, and I completely agree that we step into those waters and we really shouldn't be. If somebody's approaching it from the standpoint of we need to reallocate those funds to social causes or social services so that they can do the job, absolutely. I think every police officer agrees with that because we know there are people who are better equipped to do certain things we're doing, we'd rather they be doing that. But if the intent is really even surreptitiously to abolish the police department, it is the wrong call. It doesn't serve public safety. Gimme specific ideas as to where you think the money can be taken from. Like what units do you think should not exist and what you're going to do with that money. And you know, the unfortunate part is that, you know, most police departments across the country are already pretty strapped on budget anyway.

SD: Before we continue, I just wanna remind you that the police are not some hidden or mysterious entity in your town or city. While policing regulations have been incredibly contentious in places, it is something that your local government can oversee and have control over, like the implementation of body cameras or the scope and allocation of resources for the police budget. Those decisions are often up to officials like the mayor and local councils.

But there is another local entity that may or may not exist in your town or city called a community Police oversight board. These tend to be third-party entities that exist as a check on police misconduct, in Albany, there is the Community Police Review Board, often referred to as the CPRB. The Albany CPRB consists of nine members, five appointed by the mayor, and four appointed by the city's common council.

The main role of the CPRB is to look into allegations of police misconduct and provide policy and disciplinary recommendations based on their investigations and their investigative capabilities were enhanced just a few years back when Albany's Common Counsel approved a law called Local Law J, which granted the CPRB, greater access to police investigatory materials, as well as subpoena power, allowing the board to conduct its own independent investigations.

Despite this increase in authority, board member and former police officer, John Levendosky said that Local Law J's implementation has not been as smooth as it could be.

John Levendosky: Local Law J's new, relatively new, and anytime there's kind of a power shift there's gonna be some conflict. And we definitely do see some of that with this new change in the law. We've unfortunately continued to see challenges a lot from the leadership in the department and in the leadership in City Hall. We've had issues with regards to our new ability to have subpoenas where officers are refusing to comply with subpoenas because the department's not clear on whether they're gonna get indemnity or not. With regards to those subpoenas also it's not just subpoenas for interviews with personnel, but also subpoenas for certain files are being ignored by the city and department in Albany through the collective bargaining agreement for the PD the department, and has only 12 months to initiate discipline against an officer for a incident from the start of the complaint. And you know, that's not being done in a timely manner. So even when there are things that should be done or the community wants to be done with regards to discipline, we're already passed a statute, our limitations or statute of limitations to actually impose any actual discipline. At the end of the day, you know, we don't take what we do lightly. We understand, you know, having people look over your shoulder when you're doing a job isn't not necessarily a comfortable thing. But you know, in America we live in a blend of checks and balances and that's, you know, that's what we want to have here with our board.

SD: The CPRB has also raised concerns over its own funding. Currently, funding for the board is tied at 1% of the police budget, but the board has said, in order to maximize its effectiveness, it would need to be 5%. We wanted to share all of this info with you because it's a great example of local officials identifying an issue and implementing something that the community wanted with Albany Common Council members voting unanimously to approve Local Law J as a result, in regards to the challenges the CPRB has been facing since then, we'll have to monitor what the Albany community thinks and how officials decide to respond.

Due to the local nature of policing, it will be up to the towns and cities throughout the state to decide what they want policing in their communities to look like today and in the future. Maybe some communities feel their police department needs a funding boost, while others want alternative means of addressing crime. If it's something you feel passionate about, keep tabs on your local officials and make sure to get your voices heard. That's all we're gonna cover for today, but it's up to you to keep the conversation going. Thank you for watching and see you next time.

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Navigating Policing in New York | NY& Policing

Delve into the multifaceted dialogue around policing in New York with host Shantel Destra. From community concerns to proposed solutions, discover the intricacies of the issue of policing, featuring expert insights and community voices.