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Questions, comments on police policy

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 — In the first of two public hearings on the local police review committee’s findings and policy proposals on Thursday, around 30 Zoom participants asked questions about the process of the police review. Some also voiced concerns over certain policies, Lexipol employees assigned to the village 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 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.

The committee’s job was to recommend improvements to policies, especially regarding use-of-force tactics, community trust and racial bias.

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 across the nation.

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.

What gets passed?

David Lynch of Saranac Lake, a police reform activist and sometimes critic of the committee, asked if the village board will pick and choose which of the committee’s recommendations to actually implement. Village Manager and committee member John Sweeney said the village board will approve or reject the submitted recommendations as a whole.

Lynch asked if the review committee will be responsible for implementing its recommendations, too. Little said the village board is the only body that can change policy, and that a proposed citizen-police interface committee will pick up where the review committee leaves off in making recommendations.

Lexipol

Joe Gladd asked what the future holds for the village’s contract with Lexipol, a national police consulting company providing the village with policy templates and a digital platform. He wondered if the contract will last until all policies are implemented or longer.

Village police Chief James Joyce said the contract will likely continue for the foreseeable future. He said the fact that Lexipol continually updates the digital policy platform to conform with state and national changes is the most valuable aspect of the contract.

“They do the legal research for you,” Joyce said.

Trustee Rich Shapiro asked if Joyce edits Lexipol’s policies so they’re “our policies and not Lexipol policies.”

Joyce said he is editing them to fit local needs and that Lexipol’s policies are “outstanding,” but some parts do not apply to Saranac Lake.

“We are going to end up with policies that I think are extremely reasonable and in some cases very progressive,” Joyce said.

He said policies Saranac Lake does not currently have and adding include ones regarding mental health, First Amendment rights at protests, homelessness, anti-retaliation and biased-based policing.

Lynch brought up a concern he has with Lexipol Customer Service Manager Lisa Hockenberry, who Joyce said will take over the account and be the company’s primary point of contact for the village after the review period. Lynch has screenshots of posts Hockenberry liked and shared on her LinkedIn page supporting a legal defense fund for Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who shot and killed two people with an AR-15 rifle after traveling across state lines to “defend” a car dealership during a protest over the shooting of an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020.

“I am quite concerned that our police department would work directly or in any capacity with someone who would promote a legal defense fundraiser for Kyle Rittenhouse,” Lynch said. “I hope that you can find somebody who is not a Kyle Rittenhouse sympathizer in the fundraiser form.”

“We’ll take that under advisement,” Joyce said.

George Floyd statement

Colleen Farmer of Saranac Lake spoke in opposition to a statement Joyce and the village board issued in June denouncing the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who died when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Farmer said she thought they “jumped the gun.”

“To me, that does not speak that the board supports a presumption of innocence when you’re rushing to judgment, believing victims and calling alleged men guilty,” Farmer said. “I’m not saying that they aren’t guilty, just that we didn’t have enough information at that time.”

Farmer asked where the committee stands on believing in presumption of innocence and due process.

Little said Farmer’s question should be saved for another time because the full committee was not assembled there.

Others lauded the board and chief for that statement, made 17 days after Floyd’s death.

“I don’t think it was ‘jumping the gun,'” Lynch said. “That statement was issued quickly and rightfully.”

Interface committee

Harrietstown Councilwoman Jordanna Mallach asked about the function of the proposed civilian interface committee.

Little said Joyce can seek advice from the committee if he wants, but that its primary mission would be to “find ways to make everybody more visible and more human and more accessible to each other.”

“It’s to provide that bridge so that people can question, ‘What is this policy?'” Sweeney said.

Zohar Gitlis of Paul Smiths asked if the interface committee would have power to make policy recommendations.

“The committee has the ability to make recommendations,” Little said, “but at the end of the day the chief is the person writing the policy and the village board is the group that votes on policies.”

“The board is actually the only legal entity that has authority to make policy,” Sweeney said.

Gitlis asked if the interface committee can propose policy to the village board. She questioned if the committee would be effective in working toward change.

“I’m having a hard time wondering … it seems like this is a PR (public relations) position,” Gitlis said.

Chris Morris, a police review committee member representing the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, said he has been a vocal advocate for the creation of the interface committee and believes it would give a voice to people who are not heard by the people setting public policy. He said this is not an insult to the police chief and the board, but that power dynamics can keep people from speaking up.

“From my experience with the Diversity Initiative … going to a village board meeting, going directly to the chief, going directly to the mayor is not always a comfortable option.”

He compared it to advisory boards Saranac Lake has for arts and culture, parks and trails, and its downtown area. These board organize and amplify citizens’ voices on these topics.

Shapiro said these groups do the “nitty gritty” work before the village board makes policy decisions.

At the end, some attendees said the public comment period was successful.

“Having watched and reviewed a great many of regional (police review) plans, I want to commend all of your on your many hours or work to collaborate on a plan that I believe with bring about meaningful progress,” Andrea Audi said in the Zoom chat.

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.

¯ A second article on this hearing, with more details on the discussions about chokehold policies, training proposals, hiring and the Counselor and Law Enforcement Partnership, will be published in the Monday edition of the Enterprise.

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