After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd last May, Black Lives Matter protests, petitions, fund raisers and social media campaigns pressured police departments throughout the country to reform.
Chauvin was found guilty on three counts of murder. President Biden is pushing the Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would create a national standard. It calls for greater police accountability, and would stop problem officers from moving from one department to another and end certain police practices. The bill cleared the House in March.
In the meantime, many states have taken on police reform in response to Floyd’s death.
In August 2020, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all police departments to create new policing guidelines by April 1, 2021. So far, nearly 90 percent of police departments in the state have complied.
In Orange County, the plan applies to the Sheriff’s Office. In November, county legislators created an advisory panel to make recommendations to the Sheriff’s Department. The Orange County Advisory Panel includes 15 elected officials and one non-elected citizen.
The panel met three times since December. The transcripts and videos for all three meetings are available on the county website, orangecountygov.com.
The 31 other municipalities in the county with a police department were tasked to develop their own reinvention plan or risk losing state funding.
The process was more of the same for those municipalities: 14 to 16 people were picked by a town official to be part of these panels. They were drawn from town or village boards, school administrators, police officers, and the wider community. The panels would meet for three-to-five sessions spanning from as early as August, to as late as March.
Just some suggestions that were discussed in these panels were additional training for officers on accountability and implicit bias, mental health resources, utilizing body cameras, and updating police websites with their policies and procedures.
All discussions were open to the public and are (for the most part) transcribed and archived on respective local police department websites.
“Publicized events in our country recently have led to conversations for improvements and responding to high stress emotional and often volatile calls for help,” said Craig Cherry, advisory panel member for the OCSO and Deputy Commissioner of Emergency Services in Orange County, at the first meeting held in December.
“Our goal is to have a conversation on how to best serve the members of the Sheriff’s Office, and responding to these calls and what we can do to reduce the violence that can also reduce the amount of calls that we have to deal with on an everyday basis.”
Police response to mental health calls
For many of these reform plans, advisory panels have made recommendations regarding psychiatric phone calls, what police officers’ current plans of action for these calls are, and suggestions for improvement or reallocation.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office works closely in conjunction with the Orange County Department of Mental Health. The department has had a crisis service center prior to EO203, that provides both telephonic and in-person response 24 hours per day, seven days a week. It’s called the Orange County’s Crisis Call Center (OCCCC) and can be reached at 311 (1-800-832-1200). If a situation calls for in-person response, the Crisis Mobile Response team is called on the scene to help diffuse and provide support.
The Crisis Mobile Response team is made up of a group of health professionals, such as nurses, social workers and psychiatrists, who can provide mental health services to the crisis caller.
“Someone who has a psychiatric crisis can call the mobile response team to help stabilize a situation,” said Darcie Miller, advisory panel member for OCSO and Commissioner of Mental Health/Social Services. “Either to have someone remain in their home with a safety plan in place and order to be transported safely to the hospital for further evaluation.”
For the Monroe Police Department, there are often two police officers called on the scene during a mental health call. On average, each mental health call takes anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours - and officers ultimately end up transporting subjects to a hospital or other treatment facility.
“MPD has worked diligently with the Mental Health facilities in and around Monroe over the past several years to take into account the needs of mental health subjects, the police department and the larger community,” stated on a Powerpoint presentation by the Monroe Police Department at one of its reform advisory panel meetings.
The Powerpoint continues: “While these organizations want to commit to a solution, the responses have typically been: We don’t have the resources – mainly financial. We don’t have adequate staffing. We don’t receive training. We don’t feel safe. Our solution? Call the cops!”
“This is a guide and a blueprint to where we need to be,” said Monroe Police Chief Darwin Guzman. “Community members came up with a lot of good recommendations, but we can always improve and welcome recommendations.”
The use of body cameras was a topic of debate throughout these panels. Most agreed that they were necessary, while some said the cost outweighed some police departments’ budgets as the cost of these cameras, if not funded by government grants, would increase town or village taxes by less than 1 percent.
That being said, body cameras have been proven to hold police officers accountable and build trust between police and the community. Research suggests that body cameras can have an impact on reducing officer use of force, citizen complaints and other negative outcomes.
Kenneth Jones, undersheriff of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and advisory panel member said that the sheriff’s office is currently looking into buying body cameras.
“We’re exploring body cams right now in conjunction with the Orange County Department of General Services,” said Jones. He explains that OCSO must work with the Department of General Services as the sheriff’s office cannot sign an individual contract with an independent company that creates body cams without the county’s permission.
“There are some prospects,” Jones said. “But we want to do this sooner than later - and when we do it we want to do it right.”
In the Town of Chester, the 2021 Budget included $37,560 for body cameras for the town’s police department.
In the Village of Tuxedo Park, Orange County District Attorney David M. Hoovler, announced that his office provided funding to the Village of Tuxedo Park for the purchase of body-worn cameras for officers serving the Village. The funds will be taken from forfeiture proceeds that the District Attorney’s Office received from 2019’s Operation Bread, White and Blues narcotics investigation.
“The use of body worn cameras will not only make our police officers more accountable, but will assist in proving criminal conduct in some cases. It is equally important to protect our police officers from frivolous complaints and lawsuits,” said Tuxedo Park Police Chief David Conklin.
The storage of these body cams is what is holding back some of these prospects, as the cost of storing video footage is more than the body cameras themselves. As to who will be reviewing that footage, it’s not yet clear for most departments.
Orange County Sheriff’s Office has a unique approach to rectifying the issue of lack of diversity in its department: it’s called the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO).
As the office holds a large majority of white officers - 72 of its 112 officers are white males - the OCSO is hoping that this new position will address that issue.
The CDO is a part-time civilian position that, as stated in OCSO’s reform plan, “will be a person who is a professional in this field of work who will assist the existing workforce with diversity equity, and inclusion in all matters of recruitment, hiring, professional development and employee retention.”
“It’s going to bring in a second set of eyes that are not law enforcement,” summed up Jones.
The sheriff’s office will work in collaboration with the Orange County Department of Human Resources and the Orange County Department of Human Rights to create this position, and it will have no budgetary impact on OCSO’s present funding.
As for other law departments, and the advisory panels that were in charge of these recommendations, the number of white versus BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) officers and officials, reflected similarly to that of OCSO’s.
Luisa Fuentes, a New York attorney and Warwick resident, has been following EO203 closely, and is part of the advisory panel for the Village of Florida.
Fuentes says, one of the biggest downfalls of these advisory panels is that they do not include many People of Color. After following a long with Warwick’s own police reform process based off of EO203, Fuentes said her and her colleagues’ words were not being heard.
“They refused to do any kind of research, no evidence-based reports about policing or about racism in policing as a whole, all we heard was ‘we don’t have that problem here.’”
Some of the changes Fuentes calls for is having police trained in anti-racism and racism in policing classes--which she has taught before. “I have a Powerpoint presentation that I’d be absolutely willing to do throughout the state. And I’d be willing to do that because before we can make change, we need to get uncomfortable. And you know what, no one has made them uncomfortable.”
Superficial vs systemic changes
In Warwick, N.Y., the Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative Plan is published on the police department’s official website. Like other departments, a committee was formed led by town supervisor, Michael Sweeton.
The plan has 14 proposals, some of which included increased training, community outreach, and updating its website with the department’s policies and procedures.
“A lot of the plan is superficial,” said Greg Gallucio, a Democrat candidate running for the all-Republican Warwick town board this November. “They’re incremental improvements as opposed to systemic rethinking and reinvention which is really what’s needed.”
Gallucio had been following the town’s process on its response to EO203 closely, attending meetings of the town’s advisory panel, and sending critiques and suggestions to Sweeton in a letter via email.
“Warwick, and most of these advisory panels, refused to acknowledge racism in policing as a whole and racism in society as a whole. And that’s where every department needed to start,” said Fuentes.
Fuentes said that reform is not about focusing on any one individual or officer, it’s about the actual institution of policing. “Especially in these areas where people say there is ‘no racism.’”
“This was a box-ticking exercise and Warwick ticked the boxes. The only thing we can do is to now constantly put pressure on the town moving forward.”
The OCSO included transcripts of community members’ comments in their finalized reform plan. Of those who commented, all shared the same criticism; that the county’s process was not inclusive, nor transparent.
Allan McClain of the Town of Wallkill said he felt selection for participation in the process was biased.
“This process has not been transparent whatsoever,” said McClain. “The fact that this board didn’t include anyone from the community, except for heads of other departments, shows that this department had no intention of including anyone in this process but the people that they wanted included in the process,” he said.
Mercedes Ortiz of Walden maintained the meetings were not publicized adequately.
“It’s very hard to find out when these meetings are and today’s at four o’clock. What about people who work that aren’t able to hop on these calls,” said Ortiz. “It’s not fair to everybody else who cares about police reform. This meeting was extremely rushed and I don’t know the reason why,” she said.
Jones said that he has yet to receive any comment from local groups about OCSO’s reform plan albeit one, who he says has not responded to his follow-up, and is open to hearing any and all criticism or suggestions.
“I know some groups were criticizing the process, and divorcing themselves from it. But if something is flawed, then point out the flaws. Divorcing yourself from the process for whatever reason, will never result in improvement,” said Jones.
“The conversation needs to start somewhere.”