By Barrett Seaman—
By the first of April, a passel of reports from some 500 New York State municipalities with their own police departments will have accumulated in some office in Albany, near to that of Governor Andrew Cuomo. He asked for it.
Last June, in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the Governor signed Executive Order 203, which requires each municipality to engage in a comprehensive review of current police practices and culture, with the goal of reforming aspects of policing and to “promote community engagement to foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”
Once formulated and agreed upon by a body of local citizens and experts, including members of the local police force, these recommendations were to be first presented to the local governing body, voted upon and adopted. What happens after they’ve all been read, analyzed and digested is anybody’s guess. Executive Order 203 was silent on the question of implementation.
Deliberating in a Polarized Climate:
In the fraught period immediately following Floyd’s death, the issue of police conduct was defined almost entirely by its extremes: the Left called for defunding or even abolishing police departments altogether; the Right expressed horror at such a prospect and proclaimed that police were woefully underappreciated and that Blue Lives Mattered.
Here in the rivertowns, where police departments number in the 20s and 30s, where most residents appreciate the protections their cops provide, and where racial bias is not as overt as it appears to be in places like Minneapolis, St. Louis or even nearby Mt. Vernon, the prospect of police reform seemed more nuanced and manageable. After all, these are small villages where most faces, including those of the cops, are familiar.
How then did Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Irvington and Dobbs Ferry deal with police reform? Not surprisingly, very similarly, though with different emphases that reflected the makeup and ethos of the villages themselves and, to a limited extent, reflected the makeup of the committees that wrote the reports. Each village convened a committee of stakeholders, largely self-selected residents with interests in the issues, along with law enforcement and local government representatives. Dobbs Ferry’s committee was chaired by the Village Mayor, Vincent Rossillo; Tarrytown’s by Trustee Doug Zollo, a retired state trooper, but with the assistance of facilitators from the Pace University Land Use Law Center. Irvington reached out to attorney and former prosecutor Mayo Bartlett, who was also a member of the Westchester County police reform task force, as well as Maria Imperial, CEO of the White Plains YWCA. Sleepy Hollow brought in a professional collaborative moderator, Dr. Sophine Charles.
All four village reports endorse more officer training on how to deal with incidents where a citizen’s mental health is an issue, as well as more attention to the mental health of the officers themselves. The idea of bringing on “community responders,” specialists in de-escalation, has also proved popular, though all the committees acknowledge that this cadre of trained therapists would either need budgetary support or be outsourced to the county or the state. All of the committees demonstrated their awareness of the need to be realistic about the costs of their recommendations. Several suggest one form or another of an auxiliary police force or neighborhood watch program as a way to increase vigilance while not busting the budget.
All four villages call for more proactive engagement between police and citizens, ranging from Tarrytown’s “coffee with a cop” sessions to recommendations by Irvington, Dobbs Ferry and Sleepy Hollow to have more foot and bicycle patrols in lieu of riding around in intimidating squad cars. All endorse more engagement with their village’s youth, though dissatisfaction with police presence in schools (School Resource Officers or SROs) and with the long-in-the-tooth DARE (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) program emerged as a topic of committee discussions.
One message on or near the top of all four villages’ wish lists is a call for reform of hiring requirements—specifically amending the so-called “Rule of Three” that limits the hiring of new officers to the top three scorers on the state civil service exam. Irvington made it its lead suggestion, adding, as do others, that the tests should be given more frequently. Under the current schedule, the deadline for this spring’s civil service test was March 29th; there will not be another test for three or four years.
By requiring departments to choose from among the top three candidates on either a local list (that is inevitably small) or a larger but more dispersed county-wide list, the rule impedes departments from rewarding other qualities besides high test scores, which in turn makes it harder to diversify their ranks.
How diversified their departments are and how they interact with their local minority communities is another common focal point. Hiring practices clearly influence racial and ethnic diversity in the ranks, but how all officers engage with their village’s minority communities is seen as a priority. “Implicit bias and cultural competency” training is widely recommended.
For Sleepy Hollow, having more Spanish-speaking officers and publishing all messages in Spanish as well as English naturally emerged as a priority, given the village’s large Latinx population.
Another common theme is transparency. All the villages vow to improve data collection and to make that data available to both village leadership and to the community as a whole. Several reports call for an annual public review not only of arrests but of the ethnicity associated with those arrests. Dobbs Ferry suggests that the mayor and village administrator get a full report anytime an officer’s weapon is discharged.
All four villages favor the deployment of body-cams. Tarrytown issued them to all 34 of its officers last fall. A video database of all interactions will be available as evidence in court as well as in police conduct reviews—another example of transparency.
Policing the Police:
Throughout the deliberations of the committees charged with these reports were internal debates about the efficacy of police conduct review bodies. What emerges from a reading of all four village reports is a sense of reluctance in the rivertowns to create full-blown, standing, autonomous Civilian Complaint Review Boards, as New York and other large cities have. Tarrytown’s committee came closest, but the board of trustees did not endorse the idea, seeming to favor some form of citizens’ advisory committee that would presumably be less adversarial, more consultative and more focused on equity and inclusion. Of the 16 Tarrytown committee recommendations, all but the creation of a CCRB were endorsed by the Board.
Irvington came close as well, advocating “an independent body with subpoena power to investigate allegations of misconduct by (the village’s) officers,” although the report acknowledges that some form of Shared Services Agreement with the County Office of Police Accountability, (a parallel recommendation being developed by the County) might be preferable. An alternative to this office, the report suggests, would be to have neighboring police departments investigate allegations of misconduct.
In a related recommendation, Irvington’s report recommends adopting ABLE, or Active Bystander for Law Enforcement, a program practiced by police in Baltimore that encourages and codifies peer intervention protocols for officers who see a fellow officer violating standards of conduct.
What Wasn’t in the Reports:
Despite intentional efforts to engage minority communities in the process, including membership on the respective stakeholders’ committees, these groups tended to be underrepresented in the surveys conducted at the outset of their deliberations. The best hope is that if and when community engagement improves, their voices will be better heard.
With all the polarized talk of defunding or abolishing police departments, not one report advocates cutting officer manpower or the budgets that support them. If anything, implementation of most of the recommendations will mean more money directed at policing. And while there was a sentiment that local cops should find ways to interact with the public without a visible sidearm, none of the committees suggests they be disarmed.
In the end, the rivertowns have come out in favor not of a wholesale reinvention of their police but of something much more modest and pragmatic. As Tarrytown Mayor Tom Butler, later echoed by his Chief of Police John Barbalet, said, “We don’t need to re-invent. We need to tweak.”