Otsego County’s Board of Representatives will hold a special meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday, March 25, to approve its police review and reformation plan, in accordance with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order 203.
The county’s legislators heard a detailed presentation from the county’s law enforcement review committee at the board’s meeting Wednesday, March 3.
Three committee members spoke to the board in a presentation that lasted for more than an hour Wednesday, going into depth about the committee’s work, the guest speakers it heard from and its recommendations. The committee members were: Ari Tobi-Aiyemo, an adjunct professor of business law at Hartwick College and a representative from the Oneonta Area NAACP; Molly Myers, a Cooperstown graduate who works at The Farmers’ Museum and Fenimore Art Museum; and Oneonta native Bryce Wooden, who works at SUNY Oneonta and is also on the city’s review board.
Tobi-Aiyemo said much of the work was informed by a quote from Otsego County Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr., a panel member and speaker.
“Community policing requires cooperation among police, citizens and local decision makers in order to forge effective partnerships that combat criminal activity,” she quoted Devlin as saying.
Among the other speakers the committee heard from were Charles Epp, a University of Kansas professor and author who works on community policing issues, especially in regard to rights and racial discrimination, and Tyrone Lohr, a former SUNY Oneonta student who was racially profiled during the city’s infamous Black list controversy.
Epp became an unofficial advisor to the group, Tobi-Aiyemo said, and told the board he thought some Otsego County communities reminded him of small towns in Kansas, where the likelihood of racial profiling was high.
Lohr, who is originally from New York City and now works at Springbrook as an employment specialist, talked about the night in 1992 when SUNY Oneonta officials provided the State Police with a list of all the names and addresses of Black male students in response to a rape allegation. The police then tracked down all 125 men on the list for questioning, leading to “the longest litigated civil rights case in American history.”
However, Lohr told the board, according to Tobi-Aiyemo, “I didn’t become bitter; I just got better.”
Tobi-Aiyemo also shared with the board her feelings that some racist practices won’t go away on their own, but must be litigated. She said problems in her native Nigeria and in the Los Angeles Police Department were two examples of situations that were only corrected once the court system became involved.
She also relayed some recommendations from the NAACP, which included: establishing a police review board that has subpoena power; review the department’s use of force policy; and establish clear rules on how to respond when a conflict escalates.
The committee also made its own recommendations, including: improving the sheriff department’s collection of data, including for incidents that do not lead to arrests; developing an outside entity to review complaints against officers and review data on racial biases that are contained in the enhanced stats; provide more training to officers for implicit bias training, dealing with people with mental health issues, de-escalation strategies and officer wellness; improve community engagement; work with the county Personnel Department to hire more employees who are female or people of color; continue to evaluate feedback and solicit more input; and establish subcommittees to continue to work to implement the group’s recommendations.
The report also included some recommendations from Devlin and his department, including: a dedicated social worker in the department, as well as the creation of a new supervisory position for the Road Patrol Division; and more independent instruction and training, including in crowd management and advanced reality based training.
The report is posted on the county’s website and the presentation can be viewed on the county’s Facebook page. Public comments on the plan can be made until 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 10. The comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Otsego County Clerk of the Board, Attn. Carol McGovern, 197 Main St., Cooperstown, NY 13326. The committee will meet again after the comment period ends to revise the draft based on the public comments.
The report is due to the state by April 1.
Board Chair Dave Bliss, R-Cherry Valley, Middlefield, Roseboom, said the consensus is there will be further action from the state after the reports are turned in and recommendations are reviewed.
Cuomo ordered the review last spring in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed while handcuffed by a Minneapolis police officer.
The county legislators gave little feedback on the plan, but those who did praised the committee for its thorough work and presentation.
In other business at the meeting:
• The board voted unanimously, as part of a consent agenda, to approve two resolutions condemning violent actions: one condemning the Jan. 6, insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed election improprieties, and a second one condemning violent protests of all kinds.
• The board voted unanimously to renew the county’s occupancy tax, also known as the bed tax, and to increase it from 4% to 6%. The increase will not go into effect until Sept. 1, in order to give hotels, motels and other short-term rentals time to put the tax in place and so they do not have to collect back taxes on this summer’s rentals.
The increase in bed tax money is scheduled to go to improve the county’s roads and infrastructure.
A public hearing on the bed tax renewal and increase, which was held before the meeting, drew no comments and Board Clerk Carol McGovern said there was no correspondence received on the issue.
Rep. Michele Farwell, D-Gilbertsville, Morris, Pittsfield, was at most of the meeting, but left before the vote on the bed tax.
Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, was not at the meeting, which was held via Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7218.