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Public weighs in on police policy review

Chokeholds, training, CALEP discussed at first SL police hearing

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 — At Thursday’s public hearing on the local police review committee’s findings and policy proposals, around 30 Zoom participants learned about a proposed mental health and addiction specialist program. Some also voiced concerns over chokehold policies and how officers will be trained.

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. The committee was organized then, as communities around the state began reviewing police policies under the guidance of an executive order. The report can be found on the village website.

This report recommends, among other things, developing a citizen-police interface group, increasing training for officers, having a mental health professional assist officers on calls, and editing taser and pepper spray policies. The village board will eventually vote on these policy changes.

Village Trustee and committee member Melinda Little said the second public hearing has been scheduled for March 4 at 7 p.m., also on Zoom.

Chokeholds

David Lynch of Saranac Lake, a police reform activist and sometimes critic of the committee, asked if there are exceptions to village police Chief James Joyce’s “Interim Order 15” issued in June 2020, banning “chokeholds/strangleholds or any other type of neck restraint.” That same month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law with similar language banning chokeholds statewide.

“That is a complete and total prohibition on that technique or any similar technique,” Joyce said.

Lynch asked if that policy would become permanent in the village’s new policies. He believes policies written by Lexipol — a national police consulting company providing the village with policy templates — in the Essex County Sheriff’s Office use-of-force manual provide a little “wiggle room” for use of these techniques. He worries if the village adopts Lexipol policies those will override the village order.

This was not answered fully at the time, as the discussion wandered to other related topics.

The executive order will likely trump any local rules and has been added to Lexipol’s policies for New York state.

Colleen Farmer of Saranac Lake asked how officers in a “life and death situation” would protect themselves. Joyce said officers are trained in defensive tactics — unarmed techniques to overcome resistance and protect themselves and others — as well as use of pepper spray and tasers.

“If it is necessary to, every officer is armed with a firearm,” Joyce said.

Training

Farmer said she does not like some of the proposed sources for new officer training, specifically naming the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.

Farmer asked how the ADI is qualified to offer such training, saying it seems to be more environmentally involved.

“When you look at where all that money comes from … it creates a large potential bias,” Farmer said.

She did not know where the money comes from, however.

Chris Morris, a police review committee member from the ADI, explained how the organization receives its funding and is qualified to train officers. ADI funding comes from the state of New York, through a fund in the state Department of Environmental Conservation, to the Adirondack North Country Association, the host organization for the ADI.

Farmer asked if the ADI gets funding from ANCA, and Morris said it does not. He also said individuals make private contributions for specific programming.

Morris said the ADI has a contract with RENZ Consulting firm, a law enforcement training and consulting firm led by former and current law enforcement members. Morris said RENZ is “well renowned” and that Joyce has spoken with its leaders.

Lynch said he felt community sessions ADI hosted with RENZ Consulting in October were productive and he was glad to have them.

Farmer does not like that some of the training sources may use more victim-centered or trauma-informed methods, calling these methods “biased.”

“Our Saranac Lake police should not be trained to ‘believe the victim,'” Farmer wrote in a letter to the committee.

“While you may be addressing one bias, you may be adding another one,” Farmer said Thursday. “Victim-centered investigations can a lot of times contribute to wrongful convictions.”

Little said that was a “point well taken.”

Farmer asked which “evidence-based strategies” were used in the creation of the report and its recommendations. Joyce said these strategies include deescalation training and practices, procedural justice, implicit bias awareness training, community-based outreach and conflict resolution, and law enforcement-assisted diversion programs, all of which he said were given high priority.

A lower priority, he said, was given to the the strategies of problem-oriented policing, hot spot policing, restorative justice, focused deterrence and crime prevention through environmental design.

Joyce referred to these all as “evidenced-based strategies.”

“Each one of those, the success or failure of them are measurable by different criteria,” Joyce said.

Descriptions of these strategies and how their success is measured are included in the language and links under Appendix 8 of the report.

Hiring and CALEP

Don Morgan, a retired professor of human services from North Country Community College, asked what percentage of calls the SLPD responds to are human service-related compared to law enforcement-related.

Joyce said it breaks down to around 60% human services and 40% law enforcement.

Morgan asked if the department requires its officers to have a law enforcement background, like a criminal justice degree. Joyce said it does not. He said the department hires from the Franklin County civil service list but that he gives preference to people with higher education.

Morgan asked if the department would hire someone outside the traditional criminal justice realm as an officer, such as someone with a human service or social work degree.

“I would consider a background like that to be an asset to an applicant,” Joyce said. “People kind of tend to get pigeonholed into what they majored in in college. … I’d be happy to outreach to (NCCC) to speak to people other than just criminal justice majors to be applicants. That can only be a benefit.”

Ernie Hough, a review committee member representing local mental health and homeless services, said the Counselor and Law Enforcement Partnership initiative will also be “huge” for filling that mental health hole in law enforcement.

The report suggests developing the CALEP pilot project — 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.

Village Manager and committee member John Sweeney suggested spending more time on CALEP at the next meeting, saying it is an important recommendation that many people supported and he wants people to be more informed about what it will mean.

Citizen Advocates Communications and Government Affairs Director Joseph Riccio said Sunday that Franklin County Community Services and Mental Health Director Suzanne Lavigne worked with Joyce to draw up the potential program, which Riccio said is pending local and state approval.

He also believes it is a good opportunity for both the county and SLPD.

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.

“Once it is determined that the call requires treatment for mental health or addiction, the CALEP therapist takes over,” a press release from Citizens Advocates says.

The clinician would also provide one-on-one counseling and schedule follow-up appointments with the appropriate community provider.

“Recognizing the uncertainty police officers may confront, the presence of a trained mental health professional — when the need is determined — will improve the chances for a positive outcome by clinically assessing individuals and connecting them to the appropriate treatment and supports,” Citizen Advocates CEO James Button said in the press release.

Riccio said similar programs have been in operation around the U.S. for several years, but this would be the first one locally.

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

Public hearing information

¯ Recording of the meeting: https://bit.ly/3ufX3yI

¯ Passcode: 9%UG&+KB

¯ A second Zoom public hearing on the police review report has been scheduled for March 4 at 7 p.m.

¯ An earlier article on this hearing, with more details on the discussions about Lexipol, the interface committee and the village’s statement on George Floyd, was published in Saturday’s Enterprise.

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