[JK: I emailed James Montignino asking him to respond to some of the points in this post. In the past he has been quite accessible and responsive. He did not respond this time. I understand that he is ill with COVID which may explain his silence.]
Incoming Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino is articulate and thoughtful. I wish him nothing but the best in his new role. Some of his actions and statements since being elected have been troubling, however, including the choice of his new Deputy for the department.
In an article in the Times Union, Mr. Montagnino offered this reaction to outgoing Commissioner Dalton making promotions within the Police Department while they are being investigated by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
“It would be beyond embarrassing to discover someone who got promoted during the course of the investigation could end up being named as someone being involved in wrongdoing,” the Democrat said. “As long as there is an investigation ongoing, there shouldn’t be any promotions.”TImes Union December 2, 2021
It was surprising then that Mr. Montagnino recently told the management of the Saratoga Springs Police Department that he would be naming Saratoga Police Sergeant Jason Tetu as his Deputy.
This seems on the face of it, a serious contradiction. No internal promotions until the Attorney General reports, but Mr. Tetu goes from sergeant to Deputy Commissioner.
The problem also is that Sergeant Tetu comes with some serious baggage. It turns out that he was the Saratoga Springs police officer on duty who made the decision to block members of the Black Lives Matter group from attending the arraignment hearing of fellow protesters in the city’s courtroom.
The city was severely criticized by the New York State Unified Court System for this action and the city subsequently apologized.
It is reasonable to assume that the Attorney General will be looking closely at this incident. I expect the Attorney General will include in the anticipated report how culpable Sergeant Tetu was in this matter.
The Saratoga Today Interview
The December 17-23 issue of Saratoga Today featured an interview with Mr. Montagnino in which he shared his thoughts on a variety of issues with reporter Thomas Dimopoulos.
The Darryl Mount Case
Mr. Montagnino advocates for a grand jury review of the Darryl Mount investigation. He notes that Police Chief Greg Veitch, who headed the department at the time of the Mount incident, admitted to the media that he had misinformed the press that there had been an internal investigation. Montagnino argues that the failure of the city to initiate a timely “internal investigation” would undercut any city-sponsored internal investigation now.
“At this stage, I don’t know how satisfied the general public would be with an Internal Investigation. In a perfect world, what ought to happen is the district attorney should use this provision in criminal procedure law that allows for a grand jury investigation of a non-criminal nature. It’s the one area where a grand jury can investigate – and it’s not necessarily a crime they’re investigating. It’s allegations of misconduct on the part of a public officer…at the end of the investigation, the grand jury issues a report, and the judge has discretion to release the report to the public.”James Montagnino to Saratoga Today
Montagnino argues that the department’s decision to arrest some of the Black Lives Matter members who were involved in the July 14, 2021, protest was ill-advised. He observed that they were charged with petty offenses which technically speaking were not “crimes.”
My feeling is that if there is a petty offense committed in the past, you use a summons. You don’t use an arrest warrant, unless there’s some exceptional set of circumstances that you can put in writing to satisfy me that you need a warrant.James Montagnino to Saratoga Today
“The vast majority of people in Saratoga Springs are not going to choose to walk up to a police officer and berate him or her. But, we’ve all seen that happen under certain circumstances. And that’s not fair. They’re doing a tough enough job as it is and they shouldn’t be asked or expected to have to take abuse, verbal or otherwise, for doing their jobs. So that’s something I’d like to get in the process early on. Putting the word out that you expect a lot from our officers, and we expect mutual respect in exchange.”James Montagnino To Saratoga Today
Montagnino cites a Supreme Court decision from the 1940s that carved out a “fighting words” exception to free speech.
“I would like the word to get out that there should be an over-arching policy of mutual respect between the police and the people they serve. There is a fighting words exception to (to First Amendment protected speech) that has been recognized by the Supreme Court since the 1940s. What I would like to try is a policy of mutual respect where beforehand I would sit down (with those planning to protest) and I’d say, ‘Look, here’s the situation: the kinds of things like getting in an officer’s face and saying (expletive) – that speech is not protected under the First Amendment.’ That’s a statement intended to provoke a violent response I think. What I would like to see in a situation like that is an officer would be trained to say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s inappropriate conduct, and it can’t be continued.’ Maybe two or three repetitions of that.
And if it continues, then, OK, we’ll make an arrest on the spot. Cops have a hard enough job to start with. The First Amendment doesn’t mean you can say whatever you please.James Montagnino to Saratoga Today
I applaud Mr. Montagnino’s sentiments. I wish him every success. Unfortunately, I am respectfully skeptical. I would like to find more tempered language, but he appears to be regrettably ignorant regarding the events of the last two years.
The leadership of the Public Safety Department has made many efforts to engage the leadership of Black Lives Matter with just these sentiments. Lexis Figuereo, the leader of the group made clear to Lieutenant Robert Jillson he had no interest in literally any discussion with the police. In fact, he texted the police that they should cease any attempts to call him.
This is hardly surprising. There is copious documentation of Mr. Figuereo and many of the other BLM people expressing their belief that the Saratoga Springs Police are incorrigible predators of people of color. A standard chant at their protests is “How do you spell murderers? SSPD.”
With respect to Mr. Montagnino, his scenario of a police officer offering three warnings before an arrest was never an option at our local BLM protests.
Now I very much hope that Mr. Montagnino can somehow change this dynamic. It just seems that he might acknowledge that his aspirational plan is not new. In fairness, he might acknowledge that Commissioner Robin Dalton, Chief Shane Crooks, and Lieutenant Robert Jillson all tried to respectfully deal with the Black Lives Matter leadership.
He would do well to thoroughly review the department’s efforts to find a peaceful path for dealing with the local BLM group.
Mr. Montagnino has an outstanding leadership team in the department to work with. It is my hope that together they will find a way forward. I hope that Mr. Montagnino will acknowledge that he will need a plan B, though.
The Civilian Review Board
Mr. Montagnino has some very interesting ideas for the proposed Civilian Review Board.
He thinks the chair should be selected either by the mayor alone or by the mayor with the consent of the city council.
He would like to see the members of the board randomly selected in the manner of a trial jury.
It would be interesting to see how a pool to draw from would be constituted.
On subpoena power for the Review Board:
I know that there are subpoenas, and then there are subpoenas. The most that we would have the power to authorize is an administrative subpoena. That does not carry with it contempt citations. So, if you were to ignore an administrative subpoena the most that could happen is a monetary fine and it’s a trivial (dollar) penalty.James Montagnino to Saratoga Today
As for the power of the Civilian Review Board:
“There’s nothing in the Task Force proposal after the CRB does what it does. Its power, according to the City Charter, is limited to a recommendation to the commission. They take testimony, examine evidence and make findings, conclusions and ultimately recommendations. That sounds simple enough, but what does that mean? So, what I want to do as the first commissioner to serve with a CRB is to create a framework for what would be the role of the Commissioner upon receiving the recommendations of the CRB. I see the commissioner’s role as an administrative appellate authority. I see my role as taking the recommendation and saying: OK, I want to see all of the evidence, not just the findings and conclusions; to review that myself for factual and legal sufficiency, so that the CRB is not the last word as to factual findings and legal conclusions – the Commissioner is. I think it’s important the Commissioner’s Office promulgate its own internal procedures, so that it’s not just what the CRB said rubber-stamped. There’s a significant amount of responsibility with having to come up with the next steps.” [JK: This is exactly why the City Council took the position that more work needed to be done before establishing a CRB]James Montagnino
How Will Black Lives Matter Respond?
It will be interesting to see how the Black Lives Matter group responds to all of this. They made it clear that any Civilian Review Board would have to have representation from their group on it. I expect they will bridle at his commitment to charge people who obstruct traffic or who verbally abuse the police.
James Montignino is a person with strong and thoughtful opinions. I look forward with interest to see how he fairs with BLM.