Former Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen Comments On Police Reform Task Force Report

[JK: Chris Mathiesen served as the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety from 2012 to 2017. He sent me a copy of the comments he submitted to the Police Reform Task Force. I thought his observations would be of interest to the followers of this blog.]

March 3, 2021

TO: Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force

My name is Christian E. Mathiesen DMD and I live at 28 Friar Tuck Way in Saratoga Springs. 

I am a strong proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement.  I believe that despite the significant efforts over the past 65 years to achieve racial equality, there remains more to do.  There is subtle racism that many of us do not fully appreciate and there continue to be incidents nationwide where people of color suffer from violent encounters with authorities.

After reading the Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force report, I decided to offer some comments to provide balance and to correct some misconceptions. 

I had heard about the conflicts in downtown Saratoga Springs that occurred last summer when a ‘Back the Blue’ demonstration took place.  I was surprised that such an event would take place here since our police department enjoys broad community support.  The ‘Back the Blue’ demonstration seemed to me to have been both ill-advised and in-sensitive given the concerns being raised at the time by efforts such as Black Lives Matter.  Apparently things did not go well that night.

Residents of Saratoga Springs enjoy safety and security provided by their local police department that is not available in most of the towns and villages surrounding us.  Our police officers respond to calls in a timely and predictable manner.   We enjoy a consistently low rate of crime that is the envy of other area cities.

From January of 2012 through December of 2017, I served as Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Public Safety.  I interviewed many individuals for hiring and promotion in the Saratoga Springs Police Department.  I was extremely impressed with the applicants.  They were mostly college graduates with impressive academic records.  They were carefully screened for psychological deficiencies or racial prejudice.   

On page 3, the SSPRTS report acknowledges that the SSPD has not received the negative publicity seen in other police departments with the ‘haunting exception of unanswered questions that linger from the circumstances surrounding the 2014 death of Daryl Mount’.  I am not sure what unanswered questions are being referred to since a thorough investigation took place of the six minute period between the time a woman was assaulted by a man in the presence of two police officers and the time that Daryl Mount was found by the police at the base of scaffolding in a dark alley.  All evidence of that early morning August 31, 2013 incident, including surveillance tapes, testimony of officers involved and testimony of eye witnesses and residents of the apartments immediately adjacent to the dark alley, was released to the public (with the exception of the portion of the video showing the assault on the female victim) during a press conference event in early June, 2014.  This information was then continuously displayed on the City web site for years.

On page 6, a reference is made to ‘the department’s continued silence with regard to the handling of the case of Daryl Mount’ but there is no acknowledgement that the silence has been imposed on the members of the department by the attorney representing the City in an on-going civil lawsuit.

There is much to agree with in the SSPRTF document.  On-going communication and open dialogue between the SSPD and the public are worthy goals (p.6-7).  Twenty-four hour Mental Health Crises teams, Community Youth Athletic Programs, Community Led Domestic Violence Support and Twenty-four Hour Homeless Shelters would all be helpful (p.8).  Not mentioned are Alcohol and Substance Abuse Programs and the problem of extreme public intoxication that our officers must confront each weekend. It should also be noted that the SSPD has had a very good working relationship with the anti-domestic violence agency Wellspring.

While it apparently is true that there are presently no requirements for continuing education for law enforcement agencies in New York State, there should be (p.8-9).  Programs have been provided for officers in our department including an Act With Respect Always presentation by Coach Rich Johns and sponsored by Chief Veitch and Asst. Chief Catone.

Acknowledge, Apologize, Reconcile and Review seem like important goals (p.9).  Guided mediation to address issues of contention makes sense as does the use of an external consultant to help recognize the department’s shortcomings.  However, I will predict that the external consultant would find that the SSPD has few comparable shortcomings.

The idea of altering the SSPD from a military mindset to a de-escalation and peacekeeping mindset (p.10) is a worthy goal.  But the great majority of the time an SSPD officer spends on duty already focuses on de-escalation and peace keeping, not on the use of force. 

I agree with the stated goal (p.11) of increasing diversity in the SSPD.  This can only improve the relationships between racial and ethnic minorities and the department.  The SSPD has a solid record of hiring and promoting women.  However, in six years of interviewing applicants for the SSPD, the Civil Service Commission presented to me for consideration one Hispanic male (who was later excluded) and no black people. 

There is a reference to the importance of providing an annual SSPD Report to the City Council (p.12) but this has been done for years.

There is a statement that the SSPD officer’s use of force should be only used as a last resort (p.13) but that has been a policy for years.  The SSPD is not a department known for excessive use of force.  In fact, two officers in violation of that policy during my administration were relieved from their employment with the City.

Of course SSPD officers should be restricted from using deadly force unless all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted (p.15).  I know of no SSPD officers who have ever violated that standard.

Regarding the issue of the SSPD and immigration status (p.19), Chief Veitch instituted a policy during my administration which declared that the department would not inquire about immigration status for any reason and would cooperate with federal immigration agents only when required to do so.  The department does not want anyone in the City to feel that their right to safety and security might be undermined by a less than ideal immigration status.

Creation of an Advisory Panel (p.21) including youth was a policy during my administration and during Commissioner Peter Martin’s administration.  My advisory panel included the head of Skidmore student government, a pastor of a local church with a largely black congregation, the leader of the local anti-domestic violence organization and others.  It was a diverse and wide-ranging group.

On the topic of a Civilian Review Board (P.24) proposal for Saratoga Springs, I have mixed feelings.  If the City ever moves to a different form of government, it might make sense to do this.  However, under the Commission form of government, the executive responsibilities for the City are divided five ways among elected officials.  The Commissioner of Public Safety is directly responsible for the activities of the SSPD (as well as the SSFD/EMS, Code Enforcement, Parking Enforcement, Public Health and Animal Control).  With one exception, every Public Safety Commissioner over the past 106 years has been a civilian.  I would argue that all complaints about the SSPD should be addressed to the Commissioner of Public Safety since he or she is elected by our citizens to take responsibility for the actions of those departments.

At one time, I researched Civilian Review Boards and found that they have mixed reviews.  Some have worked well. Some have resulted in questionable recommendations and some have been disbanded.  I would suggest going slowly on this since ours is not a City with pressing police department problems.  It would be better to be sure that all citizens understand that complaints about public safety issues should be brought to the attention of the Public Safety Commissioner, a civilian.

There is a gross distortion of information regarding Police Chief Veitch (P.24).  Police Chief Veitch did NOT deliberately misinform a member of the press ‘regarding the conduct by the SSPD of an internal investigation related to alleged police misconduct associated with the case of Daryl Mount’.   In fact, Chief Veitch made every effort to correct the reporter’s misconception about the investigation.  The reporter’s misconception was my fault and I take full responsibility for it.  I suggest that you remove the last paragraph of page 24 since it is not accurate.  Members of the SSPRTF should ask for and be given all the investigative details (including the video of the assault) of the August 31, 2013 tragic, domestic violence incident.

There is a statement (p.46) that ‘the overwhelming majority of public safety issues and community conflicts in Saratoga Springs do not require the intervention of an armed officer’.  While it is true that most of the calls for emergency services do not require armed intervention, no one knows what the next call will require.  All officers are thoroughly trained to use force in only the most limited scenarios. 

‘Reinvesting municipal funds from police budgets to cover the costs of innovative biopsychosocial services’ (p.46) would be a very bad idea.  Raising funds for biopsychosocial services is an excellent idea.  I would start with alcoholism and addiction programs which used to have a higher priority in Saratoga County.  Taking funds away from police budgets in order to accomplish this would be a terrible mistake.  Police budgets are already very tight.  The SSPD has only been able to excel because of the funding it has received.  Reducing police funding will only turn a very good department into a sub-par organization which will undermine public safety and security, property values, commerce, tourism, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, the Saratoga Springs Police Department ultimately needs a new building, more officers and long-term financial commitments.  Hiring more officers will reduce overtime stress on current members of the force and improve services.  There needs to be more investment in the dispatch department and on technology throughout the department.  There needs to be more funding for training, vehicles and community outreach.   Our community benefits greatly by having a very good police department which has made great strides over the years in its efforts to better protect and serve our entire community.

4 thoughts on “Former Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen Comments On Police Reform Task Force Report”

    1. Thank you Chris for your reply on the report. Your last paragraph has been needed for more than a decade. While everyone agrees on these needed updates and staffing nobody on the council has done it.
      You mentioned interviewing good college graduates. Being very smart nd doing well on test is great. However that doesn’t always relate to having, what my father in law used to say, having any street smarts or life experiences or having had any interactions with people of color. Being a police officer should not be a person’s first job.
      I hope we all learn from this. Not anyone person or group I’ll have all the answers. And it will not happen overnight. We must be patient and respectful and treat each other with kindness.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “Being a police officer should not be a person’s first job.” Excellent point Mr Ellis.
    Some become an officer with a huge pension in their crosshairs. It takes more than putting in your hours; it takes compassion and many more attributes that are too numerous to mention here. I see patrol cars cruising the streets, and I don’t ever see their heads looking in any direction but forward. What about all those vehicles on Maple Ave.? Is the Commissioner “looking into it”?

    Like

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