Police face state edict to 'reinvent' practices

Cuomo

ALBANY — Police executives across New York are initiating the process of finding ways to forge better relationships with the communities their departments patrol, with guidance from a 135-page state manual promoting a “reinvention” of policies.

Every county and municipality with a police agency is facing an April 1 deadline to review and update the protocols used by their officers and enlist input from citizens as well as from public defenders and community groups.

“We have to address the tensions and lack of trust between our communities and the law enforcement that serves them,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared Aug. 17 in releasing the guidebook.

The manual encourages police agencies to try to recruit more members of minority groups as well as women to the ranks of their police departments. It also promotes the adoption of “de-escalation strategies” to reduce the risk of tense encounters between officers and civilians from turning violent.

Police leaders say they will both comply with Cuomo’s mandate and use it as an opportunity to highlight what they have already been doing to work in harmony with residents of their communities.

The document was sent to police agencies by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services in August.

Cuomo has contended that there has been a need to address racial inequities in the criminal justice system for years, with “the tipping point” coming in May, when George Floyd, 46, was killed by police in Minneapolis as he was being arrested for allegedly using counterfeit cash.

In New York, the most controversial confrontations between police have tended to come downstate and in large upstate cities, like Rochester, which is now dealing with fall out the recently released body camera footage related to the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, while in police custody.

The Cuomo mandate for police reforms, which came with a threat to strip communities of state funding if they don’t update department practices, applies to all police agencies, except those controlled by the state, such as the State Police, State University campus police and Department of Environmental Conservation officers with police powers.

The president of the New York State Association of Police Chiefs, Patrick Phelan, said he is taking the added assignment from Albany in stride, saying his agency, the Greece Police Department, has 100 officers.

“I’m thinking this is going to be much more of a challenge for smaller departments,” said Phelan. “The vast majority of police departments in this state have 20 officers or less. Those departments don’t have a lot of resources.”

The state manual suggests there are significant drawbacks to one controversial police strategy known as “broken windows,” which contends minor offenses contribute to a degradation of society and should be targeted by officers. The report devotes nearly 30 pages to a discussion of the importance of community policing and community engagement.

The Cuomo report also discusses the need for improved training for police as well as an “honest and thoughtful discussion” between police executives, community members and government leaders.

The statewide effort comes after lawmakers earlier this year passed legislation to make police and fire department disciplinary records subject to public inspection and created a new office within the state Attorney General’s office to investigate police killings of civilians.

Peter Kehoe, director of the New York State Sheriffs Association as well as a veteran lawyer, said his organization questions Cuomo’s authority to threaten state funding to communities that don’t advance a police reform plan by April 1.

“But we don’t care, because these are things that we’ve been doing and we’re happy to look at ways to perhaps do some things better,” he said. “It just doesn’t have to be done by bullying.”

One benefit is that police agencies may review each others’ plans and find protocols that they see will benefit their own agencies, he suggested.

As for the state manual’s suggestion that police departments become more racially diverse, Kehoe noted the sheriffs are bound by Civil Service rules.

“If the governor doesn’t like that, he ought to try to change the Civil Service rules to make it possible for a sheriff to have a wider range of options,” Kehoe said. “A sheriff can only hire people who qualify on the Civil Service exams.”

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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