A young town resident sits in the armored vehicle during a community day at the Crossings in 2019. Jim Franco/Spotlight News
COLONIE – As per an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Town Board unanimously appointed a nine-member committee to review, and where necessary modify, the inner workings of the Police Department.
The order is in response to Black Lives Matter protests across the nation over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. The protests began as peaceful calls for reform but in some places — New York City, Atlanta, Seattle and Albany — they turned violent, and riots and looting overshadowed the underlying message while causing millions in damage.
The order mandates all municipalities with a police department to review all practices to “ensure that all of its citizens are treated equally, fairly, and justly before the law.” Basically, the executive order requires each department to review the use of force strategies and procedures, how much or little it engages the community and determine if there are any racial bias and disproportionate policing in minority communities.
If municipalities do not form the committee, review the procedures and make the necessary modifications by April 1, 2021, state aid could be at risk, Cuomo said. The Town of Colonie gets about $60,000 a year for traffic safety and last year requested and received another $100,000 for special equipment. It is not clear if Coumo’s threat was directed at just police funding or funding for the municipality as a whole.
The governor issued the mandate, in broad generalities, while leaving it up to the municipalities to formulate their own interpretation and plans of action — if any. While the platitudes do sound nice on paper, they do fall short of the more extreme calls to “defund the police” and any local plans to significantly restructure a police department will be a complex endeavor involving tax money and union negotiations.
“Our department has a great reputation, we have a lot to offer and we are open to new ideas and expanding the things we do,” said Supervisor Paula Mahan. “We already have a lot of community involvement, and community policing is increasing, and our department has an excellent relationship with our school districts as well.”
Another criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement and others across the country is the ever increasing militarization of police departments. Colonie has the traditional K-9 units and also the more modern tools of policing like robots and drones and last year it purchased an armor plated tank-like vehicle for $252,000, 60 percent of which came from drug forfeiture money.
The department is more than willing to show off its apparatus and other gizmos to the community and has for the last three years hosted community picnic where the equipment is on display for the public to check out.
“We have a great relationship with our community planning another event community night out but it was put on hold because of the COVID pandemic,” Colonie Police Chief Jonathan Teale said. “We don’t just protect the community. We are part of the community. These are the tools we use to protect all of us. We bring the equipment out so people will not be afraid of it, and we show them how the equipment helps us do our job better and safer and more efficiently and that they are defensive. They are used to protect people. They are not used in an offensive manner.”
The Police Department has a budget of $16.9 million, up just under $1 million since 2018. It is by far the most expensive department in the town’s $99.4 million budget. As far as the call to “defund the police,” Teale said “be careful what you wish for.”
“What’s going to happen when you call 911 and ask for help?” he asked rhetorically. “I understand the frustration. But what happened 1,000 miles from here is not of our making.”
Teale said his department is “ahead of the curve” in that it already practices much of what the state has made into law such as banning the use of chokeholds, and the department has been state accredited every year for decades, a standard all departments must now achieve.
“We are ahead of the curve so it’s not going to be a heavy lift for us,” he said. “In fact, we teach our officers how to get out of a chokehold because it could be deadly. We do not train them on how to administer a chokehold.”
He did take exception to the a provision of the law that carries a stiffer penalty for officers who administer a chokehold on a civilian than a civilian who does the same to a police officer. One is a misdemeanor and the other is a felony.
He also took exception with the fact the Legislature and Cuomo passed a number of criminal justice bills as a knee jerk reaction to the protests and riots without first talking to law enforcement.
“We were not consulted by the second wave of laws enacted and we are still trying to deal with the first wave of laws related to criminal justice, the so called bail reform, and we were not consulted about that either,” he said. “I don’t think you will find any chief anywhere who didn’t feel reform was needed, but not in this context and not in this way.”
Members of the Colonie Comprehensive Police Practices Review Committee is co-chaired by Teale and South Colonie School District Superintendent David Perry. Members of the committee are:
– Kathleen McLean – North Colonie School District resident
– Melissa Jeffers – Town Board member and former Albany County Immigration Department staff
– Martin Robinson – Colonie resident
– Rev. Geoffrey D. Burke – Our Lady of Assumption
– Stephen Herrick – Head of the Albany County Public Defender’s Office
– David Soares – Albany County District Attorney
– Town Attorney, Michael C. Magguilli, will serve as counsel.
“I look forward to working alongside the other well-respected committee members, but most importantly, I am ready to listen and learn how we can best accomplish the safest and most effective ways to protect all our residents and employees every single day,” Jeffers said. “I think our Police Department is one of the best in the country, but as a result of recent national events, I think the formation of this committee will give us the opportunity to create a healthy dialogue with the public and develop a plan that is respectful of everyone while still upholding the law.”
The committee’s plan could include things like evidence-based policing strategies, implicit bias training, de-escalation training, assisted diversion programs, restorative justice practices, conflict resolution, how to police “hot spots” and violence prevention and reduction interventions.”
The mandate on localities to review all police department policies is in addition to three other pieces of legislation Cuomo recently signed into law.
The Police Statistics and Transparency Act — or STAT Act — requires the courts to compile and publish monthly all racial and other demographic data of low-level offenses. It also requires police to report an arrest-related deaths to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.
A second new law requires any law enforcement officer to verbally report any discharge of a weapon within six hours and prepare a written report within 48 hours of the incident. It applies to officers on and off duty whenever the discharged bullet could strike a person.
The third requires law enforcement to provide medical and mental health attention to any individual in custody and stipulates police can be liable for any injuries sustained by a lack of care.
Teale said Colonie is already doing most of what is mandated in the pieces of legislation.
“There is no way we are not going to help someone,” he said of the third law. “That has been our policy for decades.”
The three new pieces of legislation, passed and signed into law in record time by any standards let alone by the snail’s pace Albany is known for, is a follow up to banning chokeholds and of rescinding Civil Service Law 50-A, which previously protected a police officer’s personnel record from public scrutiny.
Teale said he has aggressively disciplined officers who either make a mistake or otherwise do something stupid.
“I have not been shy about it, and we have let people go due to conduct,” he said. “We do police our own. We have a great relationship with our community and we are very transparent about everything we do.
“It’s sad. I would say 99.9 percent of the police officers out there took the job to help people but because there are some bad apples who make mistakes or intentionally do something stupid it hurts us all. Do we hold politicians as accountable as we do police officers?”