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Lexipol is controversial but also a police upgrade

From left, Sgt. Travis LaBar, Patrolman Aaron Sharlow and Chief James Joyce pose at the Saranac Lake police station. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

SARANAC LAKE — On Thursday, Sept. 24, a committee formed to help oversee the state-mandated reforms at the Saranac Lake Police Department met via Zoom and was simulcast on Facebook Live. Chaired by village Trustee Melinda Little, the virtual meeting was attended by 26 people over the course of an hour, though some kept tuning in and out, as did Little’s dog. Of those 26 attendees, nine were members of the committee.

The meeting was unfailingly polite, which was itself a marked departure from previous public conversations about police reform in Saranac Lake. Police Chief James Joyce answered many of the questions, as did Franklin County Community Services Director Suzanne Lavigne, as several questions involved how the police dealt with mental health issues.

As part of Executive Order 203 on police reform and reinvention, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has required all New York municipalities to develop a plan of police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the national protests that followed. Here, at least, most of the antipathy has been directed not at reforms in general, the need for which few here are questioning, but the hiring of the California-based consulting company Lexipol to provide the manual to help guide them.

Lexipol became a hot-button topic this summer in Saranac Lake, a galvanizing issue in almost every village board meeting held since in-person gatherings resumed in July. It was an issue in the recent village trustee election campaign, and on the day of the village vote Sept. 15, some residents said they voted because of concerns about Lexipol.

Yet Lexipol was quietly adopted in the villages of Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, as their police chiefs have spent the last two years implementing Lexipol’s program. Neither Chief Bill Moore of Lake Placid nor Chief Eric Proulx of Tupper Lake was quite sure why Lexipol had gotten so much vehement public resistance in Saranac Lake.

The book of policies and procedures from the 1980s sits on the desk at the Lake Placid police station. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

“I’m glad that this conversation came up,” Joyce said recently from his office at police headquarters. “I want people to have perspective.” Asked why he had initially wanted to implement Lexipol, which had been recommended to him by his neighboring chiefs, he said it was because he wanted a web-based platform that all his officers could access, even in their cars or on their phones. And he wanted a program that continually updated itself with the latest laws, policies and procedures as they are handed down for New York state — electronically, and where he doesn’t have to type it in at his own desk computer.

“The biggest issue is the ability to have an updated manual,” said Joyce. “Right now it’s a physical book,” though one with digital copies. “You can search it by keyword,” said Joyce of Lexipol’s online system, “and I’m not the IT guy. I’m really far from the IT guy.”

The technical aspect of the Lexipol program is what Joyce is primarily concerned with rather than, say, Lexipol’s latest policies on use of force and chokeholds. New York banned chokeholds in June and Lexipol updated its manuals accordingly. But even so, police use of force in this village is almost entirely theoretical. Joyce could think of only one time in his 14-year history when a cop fired his gun in Saranac Lake, in 2016, and Joyce said even then it was a state trooper rather than a village officer.

“We kill deer sometimes that are struck by cars,” said Joyce. “Use of force is pretty rare in the North Country.”

Yet members of High Peaks DSA, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, has been vocal in their opposition to Lexipol, both in village board meetings and beyond. David Lynch of Saranac Lake, a member of High Peaks DSA, has spoken at a number of meetings, voicing concern that about a police force guided by Lexipol.

“Lexipol discourages police departments from requiring that officers use deescalation techniques. It’s a recipe for disaster,” Lynch said about the combination of underfunding public health services and police who may arrive at a scene without proper training, who might resort to force without deescalation techniques.

“Lexipol is a step toward privatization of police forces,” said Lynch. “Many of us thought that Executive Order 203 would lead to community input in reinventing the police, but it seems like we’re heading in the opposite direction.”

Lexipol was founded almost 20 years ago to provide copyrighted policies, training and services, and has become increasingly popular with law enforcement agencies nationwide. According to Mother Jones magazine, the company has provided services to over 8,000 agencies, including 95% of law enforcement agencies in California. Two of its three founders were police officers who became lawyers. So is Mike Ranalli, the chief of police of the Schenectady County town of Glenville, Lexipol’s New York program manager and the man who helped sell Saranac Lake on its program.

“We have one policy manual for New York, but it’s not designed to be a turnkey operation,” said Ranalli. “When we get hired by a municipality, we tell them you need to go through this manual paragraph by paragraph and fit your needs and your community. The town of Saranac Lake may need different modifications than the city of Plattsburgh.”

“I thought it would be a more positive thing,” said Moore of how Lexipol has been received in Saranac Lake. He recommended it to Joyce. “You want to be up to date,” said Moore in his Lake Placid office, where the implementation of Lexipol is in its third year.

Moore is in his 32nd year as a cop. When he started at the station, “we were using policies from the ’50s.” One of the police manuals contained instructions for billy clubs and regulations for handlebar mustaches.

The appeal of the Lexipol model, according to all three local police chiefs, is that it functions as a template that can be modified to suit their own departments.

“Every section of the policy has a little icon that tells you why it’s there; it’s not something that they just wrote in there that sounded good,” said Tupper Lake’s Proulx, who started implementing Lexipol two years ago. “They’re saying that it protects just the law enforcement,” Proulx said of the public outcry, “but it protects everybody.”

“There’s a lot of policies that don’t pertain to us,” continued Proulx. “SWAT teams, detective divisions.” There are 10 cops on Tupper Lake force, including him.

“There’s no ulterior motive,” said Chuck Potthast, the Saranac Lake police chief before Joyce and a retired state trooper who is now a consultant with the Lake Placid Police Department. “We’re part of the community here.”

The small size of the village police departments can be seen as a mitigating aspect to Lexipol’s use — or a decidedly worrying sign, depending on whom you talk to.

Many police departments are turning to the company for help in implementing policy because they don’t have the manpower or legal resources to do it themselves. This can make for a system that is perceived as protecting the police rather than the public, and a network of policies that work to minimize both the physical and legal risks to those police.

Not all North Country police forces have turned to Lexipol. Malone police Chief Chris Premo doesn’t use it. “I go through the policies and update every once in a while,” wrote Premo in an email. “I am a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where I have access to model policies and tweak them to suit our department.”

The Plattsburgh Police Department doesn’t use Lexipol, either, said Capt. Bradley Kiroy, but another purchased policy software called PolicyTech, which they’ve used for the last several years.

“Writing policy from scratch is cumbersome and completely unnecessary,” said Kiroy. Their software is tailored to fit their 50-person department, which includes 43 sworn officers.

Another issue that has generated negative response in Saranac Lake is the Lexipol pricetag. The $11,000 and change that was on the agenda for the village board to approve, to pay for the startup fee and implementation of the program, is what sent up the first red flag to the village’s progressive activists back in June. For $11,151.75, what Saranac Lake has paid for — and it’s already been paid, despite attempts by some village residents to challenge the approval of the motion at the board meeting — is the review of the Saranac Lake Police Department’s entire current policies and procedures manual, identification of what is no longer current and replacement by New York policies that are, plus implementation and training.

That fee, explained Joyce, was pro-rated and tailored to fit the size of his department of 12, including himself. In June 2021, the village will be billed $5,641 annually to maintain the subscription and a current manual of policies and procedures, which will be constantly updated. It is copyrighted, so if Joyce — or the village — decides to stop paying for service, then Lexipol turns off the service, albeit allowing for the police to download their manual first.

This may seem like a lot of money, but then so do monthly services like Spectrum and Apple TV. For Joyce — who does his own copying as well as internal investigations, background checks, firearms instruction and equipment purchasing — it seemed like a bargain.

The Saranac Lake Board of Trustees passed the funding for Lexipol pretty quickly. Is the level of transparancy they’re now providing, thanks to the Police Review Committee’s weekly public Zoom meetings and a recently launched online survey to “maximize public input,” a way to backtrack? Maybe.

The Police Review Committee’s public forum is a way to do this, as is a more public response to the police department’s handling of mental health calls — something they must do regularly, given the lack of other options.

Over the summer, High Peaks DSA called for the creation of a community health care worker program to act in conjunction with police responding to mental health calls.

In mid-September, Joyce and Lavigne jointly announced a partnership to work on issues of mental health response. Part of the announcement was an agreement to pursue law enforcement crisis intervention training, and to offer “creative solutions” to expand services in the Saranac Lake area. The partners pledged to “provide updates to our collaborative work.”

This effort to be transparent filtered down to the first meeting of the Police Review Committee, which will continue to meet weekly — with a public comment component — until Cuomo’s April deadline.

“I think people are missing the point,” said Little, the trustee who is also the chair of the Police Review Committee, a few days after the meeting. She said Lexipol is a well-vetted template.

“The primary motivaction is to have something consistent with best practices,” she said. “It’s a starting point, a tool.

“We’re not going to rubber-stamp it.”

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