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Malone public urges changes to police reform plan

Locals object to calling Black people ‘transient’

Franklin County Public Defender Thomas Soucia calls the Malone police reform plan “disgusting” and says it should be torn up and replaced. (Provided photo — Alexander Violo, Malone Telegram)

MALONE — The village of Malone’s police committee reform plan received a large amount of community input, the majority of which urged the municipality to reassess its plan regarding police reform, at a public hearing on Monday evening.

Heeding recommendations from community members, the mayor, village trustees and the police reform committee will reconvene at the village office and on Zoom at 4 p.m. Friday to discuss changes to the village’s plan for police reform.

In June 2020, after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 203, an order mandating municipalities submit a police reform plan to the state by April 1. Under the order, all municipalities in the state have been asked to reexamine their police departments and develop a plan to improve deployments, strategies, policies, procedures and practices, while revisiting the needs of the community in order to promote engagement.

The village’s draft plan, written by Calvin Martin, a resident and member of the village’s police reform committee, emphasizes the community’s French Canadian heritage while referring to minorities in the community as few in number and “transient,” rather than long-term residents.

This portion of the report drew comments from several residents during the public hearing.

Malone Police Chief Christopher Premo talks about his department’s progressive approach to police reform at a hearing Monday. (Provided photo — Alexander Violo, Malone Telegram)

Kennedy Jarvis, who is African American, commented on the report’s reference to African Americans as transient.

“I was just wondering if it was considered that it is the racism that causes Black people to not want to be here,” she said. “In my graduating class I was the only Black person. I see racism every day, I understand that it is not something that is seen by most people.

“But I think it should have been addressed more than it was in this article, to say they couldn’t find Black people to talk to. I would have. I have plenty to say. I’m sure the Black people in this town have plenty to say. It puts people at a loss of words to not think there is racism in this town.”

Jarvis said, however small the numbers of Black residents in Malone, they still deserve to be heard.

“It needs to be heard. You need to listen to people,” Jarvis said, “You don’t let Black people speak up, and they need to speak up. You need to let their voices be heard. They are a small community, but they should be heard.”

Calvin Martin, who wrote Malone’s police reform plan, declined to comment in person and did not respond to a requests for comment by phone and email after Monday’s meeting. (Provided photo — Alexander Violo, Malone Telegram)

Precious Cain, daughter of Howard Cain, the sole African American on the police reform committee, described the committee’s report as having little to do with the governor’s executive order.

She said she does not believe the report’s author showed any signs of impartiality and should not have been chosen to write such an important report.

“It is a stain on the village of Malone. It’s a stain on Franklin County,” she said, “As someone whose family has lived here for the past few decades, whose father is a pastor, who has taught in the local colleges and is now raising her children here, I cannot tell you how appalled I am that we would submit or even consider submitting a report that refers to the African American community as transient, when they acknowledge our presence.”

She also questioned what message was being sent to communities of color by a report like this.

“What sort of message does this send to communities of color and other marginalized communities?” she said, “What can we do to help actually get to the bottom of these matters instead of just being upset with each other.”

Howard Cain, a pastor at the Constable United Methodist Church, spoke on systemic racism.

“As far as I can tell, it is racism that is embedded in a culture, and that is pervasive throughout that culture, that affects the institutions and the people that operate the institutions, so racism is just a matter of course,” Howard Cain said, “It may not even be intentional or realized by the people that harbor it, so when somebody says, is there racism in Malone? Yes, there is.”

Howard Cain said he viewed systemic racism as something the community and the police department needs to strive to manage.

“We cannot change systemic racism right away. It is a cultural process, but what we do is we manage it, I think it is to the credit to our police chief and our shift commanders that we have not had some of the things that have occurred in other communities,” Howard Cain said, “We have things we can do, and perhaps these things should be mentioned more clearly in the report.”

Amanda Day, who works in the Franklin County Treasurer’s Office, advocated for a screening process for new employees at the village police department.

“There’s a number of problems with law enforcement right now across the nation,” Day said. “The Oath Keepers are linked with law enforcement. It is a right-wing militia group that was part of the insurrection on the Capitol. It is possible that your police department could be infiltrated by people who hold different values than we currently hold.”

The plan has roughly four pages of recommendations that deal with mental health support, the police department’s record-keeping system, a recommendation for the state to adopt renewable community subsidies in lieu of renewable energy subsidies for green energy projects, and a mayor’s award for officers.

Day criticized the portion of the report that dealt with the reallocation of subsidies.

“I think the idea of defunding renewable energy has no place in this report,” she said. “That language should be struck. It is divisive. I know it is some people’s pet projects, but it doesn’t have any bearing here.”

Police Chief Christopher Premo took time to respond to public comments midway through the public hearing.

According to Premo, he promoted reform within the department for years, adopting body cameras before other agencies, including the state police, and refusing to use military-style weapons, in addition to addressing general police reform before the executive order last June.

“I’ve been about reform for the past 10 years in my department,” Premo said. “We are one of the first departments in the area to have body cameras. We started racial diversity bias training last year. We don’t have any military weapons. We don’t allow no-knock warrants unless it is a violent crime.

“We have always prohibited chokeholds. We have never done stop-and-frisk. I have always encouraged everyone to communicate with the community. My motto has always been to treat people like you want to be treated. I’m upset everyone is upset, and I believe when this comes out, in the end, it will be done the right way.”

Thomas Soucia, a public defender in northern Franklin County, referenced an incident a few years ago where a village officer made negative comments about a Native American. Soucia credited Premo for taking corrective action and stated the officer in question is no longer with the department.

However, Soucia took issue with the report being discussed at the public hearing.

“If anyone knows about what is going on regarding arrests and what happens afterwards, it is myself,” Soucia said, “Clearly there are issues in Malone regarding racism. Clearly we have a long ways to go to correct that. We are aware of that, and we have been working on that for years, but my concern is that report. It is disgusting, and it reflects very badly on our town. And I know we have good people here, but I also know there is racism here, too.”

Soucia described Malone as a mixed community, differing from the report’s characterization of its demographics.

“At this point, that report, at the moment, needs to be torn up, and we have to come up with something a lot better than that, which accurately reflects our community,” Soucia said.

Boyce Sherwin, a community member, said he believes the village’s plan included racist tropes, and large portions should be removed.

Sherwin referenced the plan’s lengthy introduction that does not deal with law enforcement but with the village’s history.

“There is no policy in this; it is just drama,” Sherwin said, “It’s a disgrace, and what it is doing for the reputation of Malone is disgraceful.”

Sherwin also took exception with the portion of the report that stated Malone does not have issues with discrimination.

“I would like to suggest that we have a problem with poor people, that we have a discrimination issue regarding poor people,” Sherwin said.

The plan and the reform committee’s efforts also received some supportive comments, with one such comment coming from Matt Molnar, pastor at New Covenant Church in Malone.

“I read the report, and I didn’t see a huge problem that some people are reporting and emailing about, talking about a total absence of addressing the actual facts. If anything, I think it did address the facts,” Molnar said. “It looked at what the police department is doing and has done historically and giving honor where honor is due.”

Molnar said he believes the report built on the history of Malone, defending that approach and the importance of looking at the big picture.

“It seems to me the floor has been scrubbed and there is not the dirt that a lot of people would like to think is inherently there in our society, community and our department,” Molnar said.

Martin lists himself as the editor of a website rivercitymalone.com, the front page of which lists stories critical of COVID-19 vaccines. Other articles on Martin’s website support arguments that 5G causes health problems and a letter from November 2020 to Rep. Elise Stefanik, advocating for the declaration of martial law in the wake of November’s general election in 2020.

Martin did not respond to a call or email request for comment, and declined to comment in person, following the conclusion of Monday’s meeting.

The full report is available on the village of Malone’s website.

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