Alarmed by police-involved deaths and racially biased law enforcement in New York and elsewhere, Governor Andrew Cuomo has decreed that municipal police agencies must reinvent themselves.
Cuomo mandated in June, shortly after the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests in Minneapolis, that all of New York’s 500 municipal police agencies, including 32 in Orange County, must review their policies and procedures and enlist stakeholders in a “collaborative” effort to develop a plan for improvements.
Many local towns and villages have responded by convening advisory panels that include government officials, the police, the clergy, officials of nonprofits and representatives of community groups with a concern – a “stake” - in policing. A few are distributing surveys to local residents to gauge how they feel about their interactions with the police.
(The State Police, which does much of the policing in Orange County, is not part of the reinvention effort. William Duffy, spokesman for the agency, said it “is undertaking its own review of policies and procedures, which is ongoing.”)
Guidelines for the “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention” issued in August suggested that draft plans, with recommendations for change, be completed in November and December, but no Orange County municipality met that timetable, and some are just getting started on a process that is particularly arduous for small departments.
The plans must be adopted and sent to the state Division of the Budget by April 1. Localities that don’t meet the state’s requirements could lose state aid.
‘You can always improved’
The Town of Warwick got a head start by holding its first informational meeting in October. A second meeting in November featured a lively discussion of issues identified by the state including training in how to eliminate bias, use of force, how to deescalate potentially violent encounters, community engagement, mental health issues and the merits of achieving accreditation for the department.
Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton said that the town “will attack this in the spirit it’s intended. I think we will be in good shape.”
“We are at a pivotal moment,” said Shawnee Moore, one of three retired New York City police officer who coincidentally ended up on Warwick’s committee. “The governor recognizes that immediate reform is needed. Every law enforcement agency must examine its operations.”
“It’s a great opportunity if we can have an ongoing process with community, involvement that builds on our strengths and corrects weaknesses,” said Kathy Brieger of the Warwick Area Migrant Committee, who sits on committees for both Goshen and Warwick.
Angel Maysonet, a former New York detective on the Warwick committee, said the reform study process has gone well. “You can always improve.”
Maysonet, who organized a “Back the Blue” rally in July with his wife, said police officers are “the most marginalized group in society.” He said some local residents, including some members of the committee, project the problems of large cities like Baltimore, New York City and Minneapolis onto Warwick.
‘Mutual trust and respect between police and communities they serve’
Cuomo wrote to municipal officials and police chiefs in August that to achieve public safety “there must be mutual trust and respect between police and communities they serve.”
But officials of small Orange County towns and their police say that trust already exists and the state’s concerns don’t really apply to them. They say, for example, that they have received few documented complaints of police misconduct. And they argue that they don’t have the urban problems and the large minority populations of communities like Newburgh. (Overall, the Black population of Orange County is 13.2 percent, Hispanics represent 21.6).
Woodbury town supervisor Frank J. Palermo said “we have a really good police department.” He said the town won’t decide how to approach the study “until we see what other people are doing.”
Chester Supervisor Robert Valentine said that the town has a “nice little police department” and law enforcement is “uneventful.”
Goshen Town Police Supervisor Douglas Bloomfield said he’s “very proud of our police department and the work they’ve been doing. They aren’t just out there writing tickets. They’re helping people.”
Bloomfield hopes that the reform study will “validate who we are rather than uncovering something.”
However, Brieger said that police must recognize “we all make unconscious assumptions (implicit bias) about people who don’t look like us.”
She cited the experience of a Hispanic youth was stopped several times by police in his home town suspicious that he had been driving in a used car with tinted windows. He was making deliveries.
Monroe, Florida, Greenwood Lake, Tuxedo and Tuxedo Paark
The Village of Monroe welcomes the reinvention initiative. It is recruiting residents to serve on a police advisory committee and preparing a survey. Mayor Neil Dwyer said that the police department is accredited and “very responsive to the community.”
“We’re a very diverse community,” said Dwyer, adding that the composition of the population “is always changing and it’s important for us to recognize who the new people are and what their needs are.”
Police Chief Darwin Guzman said his department is actually ahead of the curve when it comes to the state’s priorities. It has, for example, reached out to Hispanics (more than 30 percent of the population), domestics violence victims and seniors.
Greenwood Lake Police Lieutenant Adam Eirand said the department has been beefing up training and sticking close to local residents. “They want police officers to be part of the community,” he said. “We’re moving in that direction.”
The department has been revising its 600-page policy manual, a “fluid” process. “You don’t just do a study and say you’re done,” he said.
Tuxedo Supervisor Kenneth English agrees that the issues that the governor “hopes to address will require a permanent commitment to sincere reflection that leads to positive action.”
He stressed that the town has “to have people who feel marginalized” on the committee it plans to appoint. Further, he said, “we’re not just doing this for residents.” Its officers come contact with people who travel through the town every day on the Thruway and Route 17.
Florida Village Chief James Coleman said the community’s advisory committee held its first meeting in December. He said that the state’s requirements “are pretty tough for a small department” like Florida, which has one full-time officer and 15 part-timers on its rolls.
Coleman said that the review of police procedures is an “ongoing thing. You can always be better.” But he worries about who will pay for any reforms recommended in the village’s plan.
The Village of Tuxedo Park strives to ensure that its three full-time and 20 part-time officers are “good fits” for the community, said Mayor David McFadden. He said that the study “means extra work” for his department of three full-time officers and 20 part-timers, but “it has value.”