Council Meeting On Police Reform Generates Heat Both From The Public And Within The Council

On Tuesday, March 23, 2021, the City Council held a special meeting to seek input from the public on a proposed Council resolution regarding the recommendations made by the Saratoga Springs Police Review and Reinvention Task Force. Many people spoke during the hour and a half event and all comments supported the adoption of the recommendations of the Task Force. Most spoke forcefully that all fifty reforms should be adopted exactly as presented by the Task Force, and they were critical that two of the items were to be studied for further refinement. I do not think it unfair to observe that there was an air of suspicion among the speakers that the Council was attempting to somehow undermine the reform effort.

Is the City Required To Accept All of the Task Force’s Recommendations?

A number of the people who spoke at the meeting asserted that the City Council is required to accept and implement the Task Force’s recommendations as submitted. They asserted that were the Council not to accept the Task Force’s recommendations in their totality that the city would be violating the Executive Order that required its establishment and would therefore jeopardize funding from the state.

The Governor’s Executive Order 203 requiring communities to look for ways to improve police procedures includes the following language:

Such plan shall be offered for public comment to all citizens in the locality, and after consideration of such comments, shall be presented to the local legislative body in such political subdivision, which shall ratify or adopt such plan by local law or resolution, as appropriate [JK: My emphasis], no later than April 1, 2021

Order #203

The key words here are “as appropriate”. It is simply not credible that all the communities in New York State would be required by the state to adopt whatever changes their appointed task forces propose. If this were the intent why bother with taking the step to submit the proposals to local governing bodies for adoption? Why not just submit them directly to the state? It is in the end communities’ elected governing bodies who are given the final authority to determine and implement the plan.

Almost of the fifty recommendations by the Task Force were accepted in their entirety by the City Council, but there were two items that they felt required additional consideration and refinement.

It is important to note that one proposal from the Task Force simply conflicts with existing law. The proposal deals with “diversion of seized assets.” Wikipedia notes a seized asset “…typically applies to the alleged proceeds or instruments of crime.”  The full description can be found at this link.

The Task Force had called for the proceeds of these seizures to be allocated to “Community Based Restorative Groups or, alternatively, community service
organizations.” According to the city, the stipulation of how these moneys are allocated is restricted by the law that established the seizure program and under this law the Task Force proposal would not be allowed.

The Council determined that the detailed Task Force proposal for a civilian review board required further research and review. [JK: The relevant text in the report can be found on in Appendix A beginning on page 84] The Council resolution accepted the establishment of a civilian review board but required as part of the implementation the appointment of a committee to craft the language that would create the review board. The Council was concerned that the investigative function of the board needed to withstand potential legal challenges. This decision generated strong objections from the speakers at the meeting.

The resolution established a timeline for its committee in order to address the concerns about accountability.

The Council’s draft resolution of their response to the Task Force’s recommendation stated:

Civilian Review Board

With regard to the Task Force’s recommendation to implement a Civilian Review Board, the City Council recognizes that there has been history and debate surrounding this issue. The City Council further recognizes that many cities in New York State have implemented some version of a Civilian Review Board, some with great success and others with limited success. Additionally, the City Council recognizes that there may be legal, union, City Charter, and implementation concerns that limit the Council’s ability to implement a Civilian Review Board.

Accordingly, the City Council approves the Task Force recommendation to

develop a Civilian Review Board in principle while calling for an evaluation period of the potential legal, union, Charter and community elements that could impact the ability to adequately develop a Civilian Review Board. The review period shall be outlined in the implementation plan and may include, but is not limited to, legal review of NY Civil Service Law and due process rights by the City Attorney and external legal counsel, negotiations with the police union, evaluation of collective bargaining concerns, benchmarking against other cities successes and failures relating to implementation, and finally, the specific process, scope and limitations of the Civilian Review Board. The review will also assess the funding requirements.

The review will be conducted by an independently appointed panel with monthly updates to both the City Council and the public. At the end of the review period, and based on the totality of findings, the City Council, with input from the community, will make a final determination concerning the implementation of a Civilian Review Board.

Can Passion be Tempered by Prudence?

I think it was rather inspiring that so many people in our community felt so passionately about combating racism and about the need to address the epidemic of police violence nationally that most of us see all too often on the evening news.

It is understandable that they felt an urgency to address this violence and that they directed their energy to try to establish reforms locally. It is also understandable that they were frustrated by any suggestion that would require delay.

This is all exacerbated by the reality that for many in the community the members of the Council appear as foreign, talking heads rather than people. Ignorance breeds fear and anger.

I can only offer that this writer knows all the members of the Council and that I believe that they are earnest in their desire to establish procedures to root out racism and to ensure that our police are protectors of everyone rather than predators.

Consider the Council’s approach to the appointments to the Task Force. If the Mayor and the Council were hostile to change they would have filled the positions with reliable cronies. In Schenectady the Mayor and the Police Chief chaired the Task Force. In contrast, Mayor Kelly authorized the other members of the Council to join her in making appointments knowing that the appointees would be individuals who would rigorously and independently scrutinized the existing policies and culture of the police department.

It is unfortunate that the Council, particularly the Mayor and Commissioner of Public Safety Robin Dalton, have now become the targets of a great deal of hostility from many members of the community as a result of simply doing their job as elected officials to carefully evaluate the recommendations of the Task Force particularly in terms of what will withstand legal challenges that the changes could potentially incur.

Anyone who knows the Mayor knows she does not make promises she knows she cannot keep. The Council could have simply adopted all the Task Force’s recommendations knowing that some could not be legally implemented and that poorly crafted programs might be unnecessarily costly and hard to fund. Imagine the public’s resentment if the Council cynically did the politically popular thing and adopted all the proposals knowing they would be reneged on later. This is exactly why people become cynical and angry at politicians. Unfortunately many members of our community rather than appreciating this forthrightness resent this and see it as obstructionism.

John Franck v Meg Kelly

At the meeting there was a sharp exchange between Mayor Kelly and Accounts Commissioner John Franck. Here is a link to a channel 13 news report that includes video of part of the exchange.

A little background is in order.

Mayor Kelly, in drafting the resolution that would adopt the city’s response to the city’s Task Force proposals, was careful to seek input from her fellow Council members. Given the controversy over the implementation of some of the proposals, it seemed especially important to seek a consensus on the resolution.

At the Mayor’s request, City Attorney Vince DeLeonardis met individually with all the City Council members to go over the original resolution.

Early in the week Mr. DeLeonardis and Police Chief Shane Crooks met with Commissioner Franck to review the proposed resolution. Commissioner Franck indicated that the language of the resolution was acceptable and he would support it. He did not suggest that he would oppose the resolution and support instead adopting the Task Force recommendations exactly as written.

Following the posting on the city’s website of the original resolution and the feedback the Mayor received, working with Mr. DeLeonardis and Chief Crooks, the resolution was rewritten. The second resolution was less lawyerly as it went through the recommendations by the Task Force item by item. It also included language about establishing a timeline to resolve the outstanding issues.

This revised version was sent to Commissioner Franck and all Council members seeking input. Commissioner Franck, rather than advising the Mayor and his fellow Council members that he wanted the city to adopt the Task Force program in totality and that he would not support the Council resolution, made his position known by talking to a reporter from the Times Union. The rest of the Council learned of Commissioner Franck’s change of mind in the Monday edition of the Times Union.

At the public meeting Tuesday Franck basically acknowledged that there were some problematic issues with the Task Force’s proposals but told his colleagues, in effect, let’s not sweat the details. We will work all of this out later.

Little wonder at the Mayor’s response.

What Commissioner Franck was cynically suggesting was that it was better to please the crowd now and worry later about telling them that some of what what they had given them could never happen or would appear in a different form.

The Task Force has been successful but that success should be tempered by the fact that one resolution does not end the struggle. A civilian review board must be designed to succeed and it will require funding by a future Council to make it happen. All of that requires continued public engagement.

Reform is an endless endeavor. The Task Force has been incredibly successful in developing a plan that has Council support. I expect the resolution presented on Wednesday night will be tweaked to make that clearer and it will pass but the story will continue and hopefully have an eventual happy ending.

Rather than condemn and abuse the City Council, they along with the Task Force deserve great credit for making this happen.

5 thoughts on “Council Meeting On Police Reform Generates Heat Both From The Public And Within The Council”

  1. While I agree with John that the Council members are approaching the Task Force recommendations with an open mind, something Commissioner Dalton said at the meeting startled me (I have mentioned this in a public comment about the Task Force recommendations). She claimed she was elected public safety commissioner “to represent the police.” This of course is not true. She was elected to represent the citizens and to *supervise* the police and fire departments. Her phrasing suggests to me a defensive posture about the prospect of having a civilian review board, and possibly an adversarial position. We need to get past this idea of taking sides and accept the need for civilian oversight of the police force as essential to our democratic system and the peaceful functioning of our city. A civilian review board would enable greater mutual understanding and appreciation of the challenges of policing even a city the size of ours, as well as the public’s deserving of transparency and justice on the part of the force.

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    1. In reality, the Public Safety Commissioner does both. She represents the interests of the police, fire/EMS, and code enforcement departments at the Council table for budgeting, laws and ordinances proposed to enable each department to operate effectively, etc. She is also responsible for protecting the citizens and representing their interests as part of her oversight of the departments under her purview.

      Chris Mathiesen

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      1. Quoting from the City Charter:

        “A. Police Department. The Commissioner of Public Safety shall have jurisdiction, supervision, and control of the governance, administration, disposition, operation, and discipline of the Police Department and its officers in accordance with Section 6.1 of this Charter.
        B. Fire Department. The Commissioner of Public Safety shall have jurisdiction, supervision, and control of the governance, administration, disposition, operation, and discipline of the Fire Department and its officers in accordance with Section 6.2 of this Charter.”

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  2. Redress is an important concept in our Republic. While the whole of the council is a board that can be appealed to in our city for any public function they are responsible for, it would be helpful to empower a small and impartial group to handle citizen redress, not just for police, but for the whole of the city. Almost like a constituent affairs coordination body with some investigatory power similar to the GAO.

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