Past Commissioner of Public Safety Lew Benton Offers Thoughts On Police and Black Lives Matter

[JK: Lew Benton sent me his thoughts on the recent controversies surrounding the police and Black Lives Matter. In his piece he refers to a recent editorial by the Times Union. I share his assessment of this shrill opinion piece. Here is a link to the editorial. Lew served as Commissioner of Public Safety for four terms from 1988 to 1995]


 John
I noted, first with interest and then with concern, the various reactions to Comm. Dalton’s and Assist. Police Chief Catone’s initial characterization of a June 26 early morning fight on Caroline Street and how some of their comments have been interpreted.

Since then, racial tensions have flared as members of Saratoga BLM and the police interact and BLM grievances are aired at City Council meetings and in the press. Time to de-escalate, cool down and divorce personalities from the issues at hand.

And is it valid to conflate – as some have – increased Caroline Street violence with social justice issues and racism and, in so doing, distract from addressing either? If that question is not being asked then perhaps we are just chasing our tails.

Now, just a few days ago, comes news that some participants in a July street protest precipitated by BLM grievances have been arrested. Most of those arrested have been charged with simple disorderly conduct, a violation, for blocking or otherwise interfering with motorists on downtown streets. A few others face misdemeanor charges for alleged conducts that only serve to corrode the movements legitimacy.

Some have already called to question the timing and manner of the arrests, what authority authorized them and why, as reported, warrants, once issued, were not served sooner. But assuming the County DA played a role in the decision to request warrants her office will be responsible for prosecuting the cases. Interestingly, the DA’s and the City Court’s role in all this seems to have escaped the same scrutiny the police and public safety leadership have faced.

It will be interesting and telling to learn how the DA proceeds with this prosecution, if indeed she does. Perhaps the city court might view the entire affair as an opportunity to encourage (require) a mediation that thus far BLM has rejected.

On Friday the Albany Times Union editorial board weighed in.

After hedging their bets with a disclaimer assuring the public that “We are not endorsing the behavior that the people who were arrested are accused of …”, the editorial board launches into a full throated assault on the police, the city’s public safety administration and the city council. Their crimes, according to the editors, include the “selective” abuse of the police power, intimidation and violation of the civil rights of protestors.

Then, for good measure, they call the administration “nasty”, “petty”, “authoritarian” and “unbecoming” before offering up their solution. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the city council had already attempted – apparently unsuccessfully – to broker a mediation and outreach.

While the editorial board’s self-righteous name calling may have given its members some immediate gratification, I doubt it will do much to calm the water or allow for an honest effort at resolution. In the current environment here and elsewhere, name calling seems to be the go to strategy for addressing difficult problems so I guess the TU board can be forgiven for signing on.

Caroline Street

The June Caroline Street brawl, reportedly involving 15 to 20, resulted in the stabbing of a 26 year-old, the discharge of a “ghost” gun and the suggestion of possible “gang” involvement. Serious stuff and fraught with serious consequences, including potential injuries to police officers and bystanders, the risk of escalation, unfounded allegations of police misconduct and the attended risk of municipal liability.

But the June 28 press conference veered into some heavy oncoming traffic. Criminal justice reform, police defunding, a growing public indifference to or hostility toward police, demonstrators demanding racial justice and police reform, and “gang” influences, were referenced as possible contributors to the street violence.

Over the last several years there have been many, many violent incidents on Caroline Street and environs, several resulting in serious injury and, in at least three cases, deaths. The greater community has in large part looked the other way because, I suspect, the episodic violence was contained to a relatively small area and had little impacted most of us.

But the deputy police chief’s June 28 comments gave cause for heightened concern and the need for a corresponding and proportionate response. And the proliferation of gun violence so evident in other cities in our region only adds, I’m sure, to John’s legitimate concern and obvious frustration.

The more recent homicide on Caroline Street only affirms the deputy chief’s concerns.

When the knives and the guns come out, it is long past time to look again at the Caroline Street culture, what real dangers it presents and the untenable position it puts the police and the city in.

Police agencies and local governments are frequently suspected of playing down or suppressing information about the seriousness and risks of such events lest they harm the community’s image or call to question its ability to maintain order and safety.

That didn’t happen on June 28. The deputy chief and the commissioner did not sugar coat the June 26 Caroline Street violence. Rather, they shared the reasons for their increased concern, emphasized the need for a strategic plan to ensure the safety of those drawn to the Caroline Street scene and the role of the entire community in effecting it.

Some heard raciest undertones in their comments and pounced. The central, intended message was lost, or at least subordinated, in the ensuing scrum.

It was legitimate to look to some of these hot buttons as aggravating influences – particularly possible gang activity and hostility toward the police – other references triggered a backlash. The Times Union editorial board deemed some statements so egregious that it called for the deputy chief and the commissioner to resign.

But if every public official and office holder resigned because of an intemperate statement born of frustration and made in the heat of the moment, none would be left to serve and few would be willing to take their place. Conversely, if every news reporter or editorial writer who has gotten a little too far out over their skis in a rush to judgement were required to resign we would have no news outlets.

And in spite of the deputy chief’s temporizing July 14 statement, the local BLM organization staged a demonstration that culminated in several arrests, subsequent police stops, increased tensions and a chaotic city council meeting.

Different City administrations have attempted to keep the lid on the Caroline Street. pressure cooker. Many years ago a 8 PM to 4 AM overlapping special patrol was implemented which, I recall, helped tamp down violent outbreaks.

Other strategies were considered. A public safety initiative to close bars at 2 AM rather than 4 AM was strenuously resisted by bar operators and ultimately dismissed by an indifferent, mulish County Board of Supervisors.

Pre-peak season meetings with the police, bar operators, private security and the SLA, sponsored by public safety, sought to lessen the occasions of violent and other criminal behavior.

I recall riding, over 26 plus years ago, on patrol with then Officer Catone late at night on Caroline Street during the height of the season. Then, as now, the goal was to roll back, calm dicey situations before they got out of hand. What I experienced then was good, ethical policing conducted with discretion, common sense and a cool demeanor.

Still, even a greater police presence designed to deter such street crime begs the more fundamental question of cause and effect.

What really drives the too frequent downtown lawlessness and occasion of violence? Booze, street drug use, diminished inhibition, alcohol fueled bravado, mob mentality, less fear of potential legal and social consequences, simple peer pressure. A “What Happens in Las Vegas, Stays in Las Vegas” mind set.

Add guns to the mix and we gain a better understanding of the deputy chief’s concern. Personal experience informs that a concoction made of booze, street drugs and guns is a recipe for violence. And why would anyone have a legitimate reason to go armed onto Caroline Street if they were just out for a night on the town and some innocent fun?

We rely on the police to protect and serve the community. When they are forced to assume the role of Caroline Street “babysitters” until the clock strikes 4:00 AM and a caravan of drunk drivers leave town, their ability to respond to other needs or emergencies is diminished and the potential to be drawn into a confrontation increases.

It is essential that, as John Catone urged, we help define and support a community based plan to meet growing violent downtown episodes. Following the summer when the city has benefit of this season’s experience, the type and number of incidents compared to past years and knowledge of any changing influences driving outbreaks of violence, would seem the best time to develop such a plan.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Police find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The many high profile police killings of Black men and women and some responses to BLM demonstrations around the country allow (encourage) many to paint all police with the same brush, a stereotyping of the many because of the sins of the relatively few.

We seek out evidence to affirm acquired bias and then apply it to an entire class. A Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, murders a Black man, and all police officers are compromised, their actions questioned and their motives suspect.

Negative stereotypes cut both ways and die hard and too many bad police, poor policing practices and failure to cull racism from the ranks in many police departments across the nation only give them more credence.

And some of the so-called tough on crime, law and order political crowd have attacked the police from a different angle. They assail, for example, their response to the January mob assault on the US Capitol, by labeling insurrectionists and common thugs “Patriots.”

A Georgia congressman refuses to shake the hand of a Metro DC police officer who fought to protect the House Chamber. And the former president who instigated the attack continues to condone and even praise those who assaulted the police that day.

Many in that crowd taunted and hurled racist epithets at Black members of the Capital Police.

How can such stereotyping of police because of incidents of unjustified deadly force and racial profiling on one hand, and right wing instigated and condoned attacks on them on the other, not make policing a Caroline Street environment or a BLM demonstration more difficult and potentially more dangerous. Or, as on the evening of July 14, how does a demonstration seemingly designed and intended to bait the police and draw them into a confrontation do anything other than further already hardened opposing positions?

Of the demonstration John Kaufman wrote:

“The announced purpose of the July 14, 2021, protest was to secure an apology from Assistant Police Chief John Catone for some unfortunate remarks he made at a press conference on June 28. His conciliatory statement issued on July 14 was deemed insufficient by the leaders of Black Lives Matter. I don’t think anyone expected Catone to actually issue an apology. The ostensible goal of the demonstration was then to educate the public regarding Catone’s original remarks in order to show proof that the Saratoga Springs Police Department is a racist institution.”

I know John Catone. He is not a racist. Calling or suggesting an institution or its leadership is “racist” does not make it so.

The Question of Racism in Saratoga Springs

Let’s face reality. Saratoga Springs has never been immune to bigotry, discrimination, racism or anti-Semitism anymore than any other community has.

Some of the more blatant examples made national headlines while others were deemed so common place as to be accepted without objection.

After Henry Hilton took over the management of the Grand Union Hotel he refused Joseph Seligman, who had masterminded the plan to refinance the nation’s Civil War debt, a room because he was a Jew. Hilton’s act to bar Seligman and his family became a national cause celebre, the most public anti-Semitic incident in America up to then.

Said Hilton, “As the law permits a man to use his property as he pleases, I propose exercising this blessed privilege, notwithstanding Moses and all his descendants object.” Headlined the “New York Times”: “A SENSATION AT SARATOGA. NEW RULES FOR THE GRAND UNION. NO JEWS TO BE ADMITTED. MR. SELIGMAN, THE BANKER, AND HIS FAMILY SENT AWAY.” Thus this place became synonymous with American anti-Semitism.

In 1942. Yaddo elected to admit African American artists and writers for the first time. Among them is Langston Hughes. Saratoga Springs, by then a city, still had racially segregated accommodations, including the New Worden hotel whose bar was a favorite Yaddo watering hole.

Hughes – already a published novelist, poet and playwright – had written “Let America Be America Again” four years earlier – so it was more than ironic that Yaddo executive director Elizabeth Ames deemed it necessary to seek assurances that Hughes would be permitted in the Worden bar. Here is the October 16, 1942 response she received from the Worden’s proprietor:

Dear Miss Ames,

Replying to yours of the 15th, I do not object to Langston Hughes, the colored writer coming in our bar as long as he is in the company from someone else from Yaddo.

Cordially yours,

Edward C. Sweeny

Much more recently, then Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim, whose physician father is a Korean-American, was the target of racial epithets anonymously published online in the “Saratogian” during a re-election campaign.

Ron publicly protested. The then publisher of the “Saratogian” said he was “… distressed that a candidate would not address an issue (privately) before going to the media…” The then editor, in more measured response, wrote that the racial slurs were “… offensive…” and she “…did not want such comments associated with the Saratogian.” Still, they were deemed acceptable for publication. A tepid response to what demanded an aggressive condemnation.

Today, of course, it is illegal to bar a Jew from a Grand Union or an African American from a New Worden bar. But it’s not illegal to be an anonymous racist or political operative who, emboldened by the internet, can hit and run without fear of retribution or sanction.

Then there is a more subtle racism hidden behind allegations of “reverse discrimination.” Case in point.

In 1989, I began a process designed to encourage more minorities and women to compete for appointment to the City’s fire and police services. At that time there were members of the community who believed, incorrectly I thought, that non-white candidates were unlikely to be appointed.

We set out by re-tooling the Civil Service test announcements, distributing them widely throughout the City, and offering pre-test orientation and other enticements. This was done through a committee I appointed made of the City Civil Service executive, the League of Women Voters, representatives of the police and fire services and a representative of the NAACP. The local press was supportive and profiled the initiative.

Some members of the city’s political class suggested it was not a politically savvy move but the leadership of the police department supported the effort and I never heard a word of protest from the ranks.

But in 1997, an action was brought against me alleging reverse discrimination. The action was ultimately dismissed but only after bumbled initial steps by the NYS Division of Human Rights and a protracted fight to defend our position and the right to actively recruit minorities.

These examples underscore past racism and discrimination here in Saratoga Springs that needs to be known and understood. That is not the role of the police but rather the obligation of the entire community including our schools, faith communities and government.

Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister who established the modern London Metropolitan Police, identified nine principles of “ethical” policing, including this:

“To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

Yes, police must be held to a high standard and evidence of racial bias must be disqualifying. But for many years now perspective appointees to the Saratoga Springs Police Department have been subjected to psychological examination, background investigation, interviews and even polygraph testing before appointment.

So we acknowledge that it is our duty to support the police as our representatives in promoting the welfare of the community but it should also be our duty to call out and fight against racism whenever and wherever we see it.

Perhaps we should demand that this year’s crop of city council candidates outline specific actions they would take to seek to address street violence, promote racial peace and justice and bring the best motivated, culturally and racially aware candidates into the police department. So far few have offered more than pious fluff.

Lew
09/13/2021

11 thoughts on “Past Commissioner of Public Safety Lew Benton Offers Thoughts On Police and Black Lives Matter”

  1. Lew’s thoughts are cogent, thorough and thought provoking. However, I think that his comments gloss over a few really key points:

    a) The Black Lives Matter protests in Saratoga Springs are a direct reaction to death of Darryl Mount and ensuing lack of transparency. This very website has documented well the problematic response of the SSPD to this incident, including the fact that the lack of an investigation potentially violated SSPD’s own policy.
    b) While violence on Caroline Street is a real issue, Officer John Catone’s link of violence to the social justice movement exactly because he didn’t understand point a. Officer Catone seems to conflate specific criticism of his own department’s actions to some broader anti-police sentiment in the air that is fueling crime. This conflation is problematic, and dare I say…yeah, racist. The BLM activists are not the people with guns on Caroline Street.
    c) Even more troubling was what Officer Catone’s words revealed about his understanding of policing. What exactly does a police officer “stopping a narrative” entail? The job of the police is to keep the peace, not to proactively propagate any sort of narrative.
    d) I live on Broadway and I had a view of the July 14th protest. The SSPD came dressed in full riot gear in a clear show of intimidation. The protest was impassioned and at times disruptive, but it was clearly not in danger of devolving into a violent riot. The intention was clearly to send a message, and to propagate a narrative.

    Based on these troubling facts, it seems natural to conclude that the purpose of the arrests of protestors was not to keep residents more safe, or to bring peace to the city. Rather, the transparent conclusion is that the purpose of these arrests were to stop the narrative that the SSPD failed to properly investigate the death of Darryl Mount, a conclusion which this website has in the past suggested.

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    1. This is all a convoluted portrayal of misconstrued points.

      A. There was no need for an internal investigation into the mount incident, as witness statements show nothing of a nefarious nature took place.

      B. Catone’s comment in regards to BLM and social justice warriors was simply in regards to the lack of respect and antagonization officers have encountered since their onslaught. People that misinterpret or manipulate this statement as anything more are of great ignorance, of low intellect, or simply latching on to anything they can manipulate to fit their agenda.

      C. The narrative Catone wished to stop is the disillusioned narrative that delusional people have created. These antagonists knew not of Darryl Mount or the tragic incident which took place eight years ago until after the first demonstrations took place on Broadway after George Floyd was murdered, and the police came out to take a knee with them. A disturbed antagonist and lifelong, low level criminal, named Alexis Figuereo, saw an opportunity to exploit a tragedy in his own pursuit of power and to antagonize police, while looking to feed on the wallets of the simple minded.

      D. The police wore crows control armor for the exact reason it was created. Only a naive, ignorant, or simple minded person can find a narrative of intimidation in regards to officers wearing it. When dealing with a large aggressive crowd, police wear these uniforms in the instance that things may get out of control or turn violent.
      This is not a difficult concept to grasp.
      In previous demonstrations these antagonists have carried weapons such as batons and bats, and as we have seen, they resort to throwing bottles and such.
      Another thing you and the antagonists fail to realize is the very real possibility that citizens may say “enough is enough” and take action themselves, which will almost surely escalate into a full on melee.
      And please stop acting as though these antagonists don’t have a violent nature or intimidation factor. There is video of them going after citizens.

      E. What you and the antagonists fail to recognize is that a private citizen is responsible for them being charged. The citizen which was kept from seeking medical aid wanted to pursue charges, an investigation took place, witnesses interviewed, evidence compiled, and the case brought to the DA whom presented the case to the court for warrants, for which a judge or Magistrate deemed there was sufficient evidence to issue warrants for the arrest of these individuals. IT WAS OUT OF THE SSPD’s HANDS!

      Facts matter.

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      1. If this is really the Captain of the SSPD, then I’d find your suggestion that your critics are of low intelligence to be unbecoming of a man in a leadership position speaking to a constituent. I am going to respond, clearheadedly and respectfully. I’m not a cop hater — I’m a fair observer, and a respecter of justice and the constitution.

        Your critics in the Mount case are suggesting that regardless of witness testimony, the language of General Order #25 requires an internal investigation of any complaint, without qualification. Of any complaint, no matter how small, no matter how airtight the witness testimony may be. This was national news — perhaps the biggest complaint your department has ever had. I don’t see how the lack of an investigation was not, at least, a procedural misstep, and I don’t think that question has ever been answered. Your department continues to point to the witness testimony, which as far as I can tell, is irrelevant based on the letter of the law.

        I also don’t know Officer Catone, and you do. I hear that he’s a good man and I don’t have a reason to not believe it. I am not assailing his character when I say — his words were improper for a man in a leadership position. They suggested an aggressive and improper approach to policing. I know that sounds ridiculous to you, because you know him. But to bystanders, we aren’t trying to unfairly assail him. The words were genuinely unbecoming of a police officer.

        I won’t speak to the conduct of the BLM movement in Saratoga, or to the tactical response of the police. We might not fully agree, but that doesn’t make either of us wrong. This is a complicated issue that is much bigger than both of us. I do want to say — I know you are being assailed right now, maybe unfairly in many cases. But not all of your critics are “low intelligence”. Not everyone who sees issues with policing is “ignorant”, and not everyone who has a criticism of your department is a “cop hater”.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. togacaptain – I disagree with the lack of a need for an investigation in regards to Darryl Mount. Anytime someone is seriously injured or dies as a result of an interaction with the police, there needs to be a comprehensive investigation. This is standard with police use of firearms – there is always an investigation. There is a sequence of events that needs to be analyzed. For example, the police were justified in pursing Mount because they were responding to an assault. The manner in which he died during the pursuit is the major investigatory aim. In the absence of evidence that the police caused his death, they are completely innocent. While the lack of an investigation will cloud this case, it does not inculpate the responding officers.

        As to the arrests of the BLM activists for obstructing traffic, I question if it was necessary to use the evidence provided by the man who needed to take his medication. It is not reasonable to assume one would leave the house not expecting some sort of possible delay if your life depended on taking said medication. He probably did need to take his medication, and the BLM protestors were probably raising his blood pressure. However, if you are in the act of committing a crime and someone dies of a heart attack (robbing a bank for example), you can be charged with the death. I think they should have made the arrests or issued summons on the spot for obstructing traffic – the medication story seems a little bit concocted.

        – Cato

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  2. As far as I know, there continues to be no one on the SSPD currently with the rank of Captain. The last Captain was Mike Chowske who retired over 8 years ago. SINCE Chief Veitch re-organized the department, the positions in descending order of authority are chief, assistant chief,lieutenants (4 or 5) and sergeants (numerous).

    I continue to be disappointed that there is so little recognition of the fact that there was a comprehensive investigation of the facts surrounding the incident that occurred in the early morning hours of August 31, 2013 between 3:02 AM and 3:08 AM. Full details of the investigation were released to the public during a lengthy press conference on June 20, 2014 and were then posted on the City website and the SSPD website for many years.

    Chris Mathiesen

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    1. Mr. Mathiesen, I just want to clear up to you that I never referred to myself as Captain of any type of law enforcement agency. I am just the captain of a boat.

      Mr. Leon simply manifested that assumption.

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  3. Carl Strock, in his lovable curmudgeonly way, has no love for either side:

    It’s hard to sympathize with Saratoga Black Lives Matter protesters as they block streets, tie up traffic, taunt the police, shut down City Council meetings and then wax indignant when some few of them get arrested, their reaction being: How dare you violate our constitutional rights? It’s also hard to sympathize with the Saratoga Springs police, who, in a no-win situation, have responded clumsily and inconsistently, meekly taking the taunts and backing off from confrontations on Broadway, then later tackling and roughly arresting a few seemingly randomly chosen protesters, or, on a later occasion, making arrests two months after the events. The then-police chief, Gregory Veitch, said there had been two investigations into the matter, one criminal and one internal, and both had cleared his cops, though he later conceded to the family’s lawyer, in a deposition, that there had been no investigation at all except one to determine what charges to drop on the comatose Mr. Mount. As for what he had told a reporter about those supposed two investigations, “I can say that I misled her,” he conceded. And that’s it, if you can believe it. No investigation to this day. Nothing.

    https://dailygazette.com/2021/09/19/guest-column-strock-hard-to-sympathize-with-saratoga-blm-protesters-but-2013-death-of-black-man-deserves-an-impartial-investigation/

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  4. Interesting response to Mr. Strock:

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  5. How is it that 95% of the time the Mount incident is referenced in the media, there is no mention of the current civil litigation between the Mount family and the City? I am not a lawyer, but how would the city continue to defend itself in the current civil suit while simultaneously launching a new investigation to see if the SSPD were responsible for Mount’s injuries? Those actions seem totally contradictory.

    Additionally, this question from Mr. Benton really brings it al home, ‘on the evening of July 14, how does a demonstration seemingly designed and intended to bait the police and draw them into a confrontation do anything other than further already hardened opposing positions?’

    It is ENOUGH with the ‘Saratoga BLM’ social justice warriors, how much longer must we tolerate a tiny handful of people who really only intend to provoke and never resolve? Just like their new companion paper, the Times Union, they are responsible for spreading misinformation that isn’t just dishonest, it is harmful and destructive to the entire community.

    Liked by 2 people

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