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Hearing tonight on police reform plan

Committee has spent 6 months developing report

From left, Sgt. Travis LaBar, Patrolman Aaron Sharlow and Chief James Joyce pose at the Saranac Lake police station in September 2020. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

SARANAC LAKE — The first of two public hearings on the Saranac Lake Police Review Committee’s draft report and recommendations will be held tonight at 7 p.m. over Zoom.

The recommendations include developing a citizen-police interface group, increased training for officers, establishing a mental health professional to assist officers on calls, editing taser and pepper spray policies and developing more content on the department website.

On Feb. 10 the committee released its draft report — a cumulative document of the weekly meetings and listening group discussions it has held since August 2020.

“This will be the first of two (public hearings) that we do before we do any potential rewrites and submit final recommendations, that will be voted on by our committee, to the board,” committee member and village Trustee Melinda Little said at a village board meeting Tuesday night.

Communities around New York are conducting these reviews and revisions of police policy after an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June following protests over several well-documented killings of Black people by police last year.

The department has hired the police policy consulting company Lexipol for help with this process, which provides a digital policy platform and templates. The initial consulting cost $11,000, and starting in June, the village will be billed $5,641 annually to maintain the subscription and a current manual of policies and procedures, which will be consistently updated.

The department received 165 policy templates from Lexipol: some new, some old and some irrelevant. Village police Chief James Joyce is in the process of paring these templates down, with an expected finish date sometime in the fall.

The committee is meant to recommend improvements to policies, especially regarding use-of-force tactics, community trust and racial bias.

“I’m proud of our work here,” Little said Wednesday.

Trustee Rich Shapiro pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting that Saranac Lake is ahead of many other North Country municipalities in the timeline and extent of their committee.

Training

Many of the committee’s recommendations come down to increasing training for officers.

One area of increased focus it suggests is on procedural justice, also known as principled policing.

Procedural justice refers to the idea of fairness in the rules and processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources. This is as opposed to distributive justice, which refers to fairness of outcomes.

There is also recommendation for implicit bias awareness training. An implicit bias is essentially application of a mental stereotype on an individual during an interaction.

“There is strong agreement that this type of training needs to be done both in the short term and on a recurring basis,” the report says. “All Village staff (including elected officials) recently took an on-line Bias Awareness Training course as a first step.”

The report suggests that the department designate an individual to fulfill the role of a community relations coordinator.

Diversion of duties to other agencies is also highlighted, however, there is not much suggested for the department to do.

“As per the DA’s office, it’s not realistic for the SLPD to set up its own diversion program because of the insufficient resources available,” the report says. “What is realistic is to identify resources at the County level and refer individuals to the appropriate services.”

These services include child protection services; adult and family treatment courts; mental health treatment; adult protective services; St. Josephs’ Open Access Center; and Veteran’s Court.

The report also highlights deescalation tactics.

“Deescalation of a situation is a priority in each law enforcement encounter,” the report says. “In order for it to become institutionalized it needs to be included in as many policies as possible and applicable.”

CALEP

The report suggests developing a pilot project for Counselor and Law Enforcement Partnership — a collaborative initiative between Citizen Advocates, the Saranac Lake Police Department and Franklin County Community Services to offset some mental health-, homelessness- and substance abuse-related responsibilities from the police and onto social work professionals.

“(SLPD) determined the majority of calls received by the Department were in response to individuals in mental health and/or substance use crisis,” the report says.

If this project is approved, Citizen Advocates would hire a licensed clinician to work exclusively with the SLPD. This clinician would respond to calls separately, after police officers assesses the safety of the location. The clinician would determine if immediate crisis intervention is needed. Otherwise, the clinician would provide one-on-one counseling and schedule follow-up appointments with the appropriate community provider.

Sweeney said the village is negotiating with Citizen Advocates to lease property for the clinician near the police department on Main Street.

Controversial strategies SLPD currently avoids

The report includes responses to strategies the governor raised concerns about. According to the report, SLPD already does not practice several of these strategies or subscribe to the ideas behind them.

According to the report, the department does not subscribe to the “broken window” theory of policing, which involves ticketing every violation, no matter how small. The SLPD plans to add language limiting “fishing expeditions” at traffic stops, and it does not practice “stop and frisk.”

The report says this policy has a “disproportionate effect on Black and poor communities,” and that SLPD officers only stop a person under “limited circumstances,” like if they are investigating a weapons complaint.

The department has policies on the use of tasers and pepper spray, including recording use of them. The report says these policies are being updated but does not detail what updates will entail.

In June 2020, New York state banned police chokeholds, strangleholds and other types of neck restraints.

The report says the SLPD has a policy prohibiting “retaliatory force” and that shooting at moving vehicles is prohibited except when the vehicle is being used as a “dangerous instrument.”

The report says high-speed pursuits are “not safe within the village and generally not a good idea. It says the officer’s and public’s safety are the highest priorities in contemplating a vehicle pursuit.

The report says no-knock warrants have “never been seen in Saranac Lake,” but that the county district attorney provides specific guidelines for this tactic, which is only meant to be used under “extraordinary circumstances.”

“This is being discussed at the state level and we will look to them for guidance,” the report says.

SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams are used on a limited basis in the village and under the authority of State Police.

“It’s needed as a tool but there needs to be controls on its use and should only be used when other avenues have been exhausted,” the report says.

The report says SLPD do not use quotas, facial recognition technology or handcuffing as use of force or punishment.

Who is on the review committee

The committee is comprised of 10 members: village Manager John Sweeney; Joyce; Little; Chris Morris from the Adirondack Diversity Initiative; Ernest Hough from Samaritan House and Lakeside House, which serve the homeless and people with mental illness, respectively; Betsy Fuller from Adirondack Health; Sarah Clarkin from the Harrietstown Housing Authority; Franklin County Assistant District Attorney David Hayes; Angela Brice from North Country Community College; and Suzanne Lavigne from Franklin County Community Services.

“Numerous unsuccessful attempts were also made to recruit a representative from the Franklin County public Defender’s office and to recruit a person of color,” the report says.

“We all had concern about not having someone of color on the committee,” Little said Wednesday. “Diversity here is really hard.”

Little said the committee had a person of color they hoped could join, but it didn’t work out for him.

Rhonda Lynn Couwenhoven, a woman of color, was briefly on the committee.

“She was a great addition to the committee, but her life took a turn and she just couldn’t do it,” Little said. “It was her choice.”

She hopes a proposed “interface committee” will be more diverse because it won’t have the “time crunch” they felt to assemble the review committee.

Little also said the public defender’s office did not respond to requests.

Interface committee

The review committee’s work will be mostly over after it makes its final recommendations this spring.

One of the review committee’s recommendations is to create a “Saranac Lake Citizen-Police Interface Committee” to provide a forum for discussion of policies and regularly meet with SLPD liaisons.

“The purpose is really to provide a bridge of communication between the police and the citizens of Saranac Lake,” Little said at the board meeting.

She also wants it to ensure the recommendations the committee makes are implemented.

This seven-member Interface Committee would be comprised of volunteers from community groups who submit letters of interest and would be appointed by the village board.

“Every effort also needs to be made to ensure that the membership includes persons of color and of different ethnic backgrounds,” the report says.

Liaisons for the police department would be the chief of police, the department’s community relations coordinator, the village manager and a village trustee.

Members would hold monthly meetings and serve for two-year terms. These meetings would be livestreamed and recorded.

The group would not have authority over the department or its policies, but would hold more of an advisory and public comment role.

Arrest data

The report says the committee conducted an analysis of the last three years of traffic ticket data and found that “There is no indication of bias-based traffic stops/tickets by the SLPD.”

A comparison in the report pairs SLPD traffic calls in 2019 with U.S. census population estimates for the same year, showing arrests by race similarly reflect local demographics.

Of all the SLPD calls in 2019, around 6.2% resulted in arrests. White people constituted 96.3% of these arrests, relatively close to the 93.3% white population in Saranac Lake estimated by the census.

Black people made up 2.4% of the arrests, slightly less than the 3.7% Black population in Saranac Lake estimated by the census. This percentage represents four arrests.

The department arrested one Native American and one person of unknown race that year.

The department went out on 2,626 calls in 2019.

The data sheet shows 206 of these calls, or 7.8%, were for domestic violence, and that 7.8% of the domestic violence calls resulted in arrests.

Of the total calls, 100, or 3.8%, were for welfare checks, and 53, or 2%, were for mental health. Of these calls, 15% resulted in mental hygiene law arrests and hospital transport.

Three calls were for overdoses, and none resulted in an arrest.

Survey

A survey the committee disseminated through hard copies around town and online garnered 228 responses.

Respondent demographics closely resembled U.S. census population estimates for Saranac Lake in 2019.

Between 70 and 80% of respondents said they believe mental health issues, homelessness and substance abuse should be handled by trained social workers or other non-police personnel.

More than 66% of respondents said they also support continued deescalation training for police; mandatory body camera use and release of body cam footage when legally appropriate; strict guidelines on use of force, especially deadly force; ending profiling and stop-and-frisk; and investing in rigorous training to reinforce policies, including testing for bias.

Public hearing information

A public hearing on the Saranac Lake Police Review Committee’s draft report will be held tonight, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m.

¯ Zoom link: https://bit.ly/3dnne0s

¯ Written comments can be submitted:

¯ online at http://bit.ly/SLEO203draft

¯ by email at clerk@saranaclakeny.gov

¯ by mail at Village of Saranac Lake, Kareen Tyler, 39 Main St, Saranac Lake, NY 12983

¯ The committee’s full report can be found: under the “Community Discussions, Notices, Recordings & Documents” section of the “Board of Trustees” tab on the “Documents and Forms” page of the village website.

¯ Recordings of the committee’s meetings can also be found there.

¯ Hard copies of the report can be obtained at the village offices or by calling 518-891-4150 ext. 202.

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