Poughkeepsie Common Council discusses right to know legislation

POUGHKEEPSIE – City lawmakers in Poughkeepsie held a virtual meeting Monday night to discuss setting a public hearing on the “Right to Know” legislation that seeks additional transparency in the city’s police force and settle a longstanding contract dispute between the city and their Industrial Development Agency.  The public hearing has been set for 5:30 p.m. July 6.  The meeting will be available online here.

The five lawmakers participating in the meeting approved the IDA resolution.  Council members McNamara, Cherry, and Lorraine Johnson were absent and Council Chair Sarah Salem said that Councilman Randall Johnson III was out of state and was unable to get internet service and would not be participating.

The right to know change to the current local law would require police officers to provide business card identification that includes the officer’s name and details on how to file a complaint, and a written record of the interaction after the officer verbally explains the reason for the interaction. That information is currently captured on the body cameras worn by every uniformed officer. That program went into effect in January of this year.  Mid-Hudson News coverage of the BWC program can be found here.

The police department made the complaint form available online in 2019.  Police Chief Tom Pape said that, in 2017, the department received nine complaints, eight in 2018, 10 in 2019, and have received six so far this year.

Since going online, Pape said that he has also been tracking the submission of commendations and compliments resulting from interactions between police and the community.  Those with access to the internet can submit commendations on the department’s website.  In 2019, 33 letters of commendation were submitted and the Chief has received 26 so far this year.  In 2018, the department received one complaint of racism that was investigated and found to be unsubstantiated.  In 2019, the department received two allegations of racism and Chief Pape said both were “unfounded.”

There was little discussion on the legislation during the meeting.  Captain Richard Wilson and Captain Steven Minard gave an overview of various new or revived programs as well as information on diversity in the department.  When more than 30 officers left the department a few years ago, the city and the police union (PBA) worked to develop a retention plan that has almost returned the department to its full complement of 92 sworn officers.  There are currently two vacancies.  Since the plan’s inception, the department has improved its diversity by adding three African American officers, a recruit from South America, one Asian officer, and five females.

One aspect of Wilson’s presentation involved the department’s Behavioral Evaluation and Action Team, known as BEAT, which partners officers with Licensed Master Social Workers.  The officer, with Crisis Intervention Training, teams up with the social worker one to two times per week to interact with individuals known to be, or in, crisis.  In the two years of operation, the team has had more than 500 documented interactions.

When questioning from the council began, member Evan Menist asked Captain Wilson to express his thoughts on right to know.  Wilson intimated that Chief Pape has the final say on the policy, noting “We’ve done everything that’s been asked of us.”  Menist also questioned the college credit requirement for new officers, indicating that it might make diversifying the department more difficult.  New officers need 60 college credits and that is a rule governed by the Dutchess County Department of Human Resources.

Councilwoman Sarah Brannen added that a residency requirement should be a top priority for the department.  Currently, new officers must reside within 20 miles of the city “as the crow flies,” according to Wilson.

Turning back to RTK, Councilwoman Yvonne Flowers told her colleagues that she is out in the community and has seen noticeable improvements in the way officers attempt to make themselves known to the community through interactions.  “The police are much more involved in community activities.”

Mayor Rob Rolison pointed out that “Policing is a seven-day-a-week job, for all of us.”  The mayor told Mid-Hudson News that everyone needs to be involved to keep crime down.  After the added presentations were made, Rolison said “The dialogue that is taking place this evening is vitally important for our city. We look forward to the continuing conversation on Policing and community relations because it is needed.”

Salem added several presentations to the agenda, each lasting for at least 12 minutes, followed by several minutes more of questions and answers between the board members and the presenters.  End the New Jim Crow Network (ENJAN), represented by Earl Brown, Jeffrey Scheider, and Rasonia Squire spoke in favor of the RTK.

A presentation was made by Ray Leiner of Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley calling for the defunding of the police department.  Salem has expressed an interest in defunding the police, which would take a portion of the police department budget and reallocate it to other areas.  Recently Salem told Mid-Hudson News that “Efforts to refund communities makes sense by prioritizing social investments and redirecting resources towards healthcare, housing, education, workforce improvements, and other necessities thereby helping to grant our residents more peace of mind and more equitable access to opportunities.”  When asked how that would affect situations like the city’s recent uptick in shootings and stabbings, Salem followed with “Defunding the police doesn’t mean eliminating the police.  It’s an effort to rethink what public safety looks like per community and need.”  Leiner also referenced the recent “transphobic” rap by a black officer in the New Paltz Police Department, saying that diversifying a police department doesn’t end racism.

In addition to ENJAN and Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley, presentations from Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson and County Legislator Randy Johnson, father of the absent Councilman Randall Johnson III were scheduled as well as one from Shannon Wong from the New York Civil Liberties Union.

City of Poughkeepsie PBA President Kevin Van Wagner, who represents the 90 women and men who serve as police officers in the city had requested to speak at Monday’s meeting.  His request was not recognized.

Van Wagner and his members are denouncing the idea of defunding the police department.  “To propose defunding the police would erase years of progress that we have made and diminish the relations that we have developed with the community,” said Van Wagner.  Addressing the recent shootings and stabbings, Van Wagner, who serves in the Community Policing unit added, “Our city is currently experiencing an uptick in violent crime and specifically gun violence, and it is clearly not the appropriate climate to consider reallocating needed funds.”

Van Wagner also addressed diversity in the department and indicated that defunding the department would put that at risk.  “Defunding the police now will cripple our ability to attract new officers, specifically minorities, and will eliminate our ability to continue our progress of creating a diverse department.”

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