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Police reform plan sparks controversy then conversation on racism in the North Country

Protestors gather at a Black Lives Matter rally in Saranac Lake’s Riverside Park on June 2, 2020. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

The village of Malone faced fierce backlash last month after its draft police reform plan praised the community’s white heritage and described Black residents as transient. But that controversy led to more nuanced conversations about racism in Malone and a new police reform plan that acknowledges systemic racism.

The first draft of Malone’s police reform plan dismissed racism and said the village’s white heritage was an asset to police. It linked Black people to the local prisons and said Malone’s proximity to the native reservation at Akwesasne led to a “never ending crisis” of illicit drugs.

“It’s a stain on Malone, it’s a stain on Franklin County and it’s a stain on the North Country,” said Precious Cain.

At the village’s first public forum in late March, Cain, a Black woman from Malone, condemned the plan. Dozens of people were at that meeting and nearly everyone who spoke was critical of the plan.

A small group of people also protested outside the village offices. “Black lives matter, everywhere,” protesters chanted.

“I didn’t expect that many people to come out and say that this isn’t okay,” said Cain. “This is completely unacceptable.”

After that first meeting, officials in Malone scrapped the draft plan and agreed to schedule two more public forums. At one of the follow-up meetings, Village Police Chief Christopher Premo told the committee he reached out to Akwesasne’s Tribal Police Chief to apologize.

“I actually reached out to him and apologized for our report yesterday, which he appreciated– the initial report.”

After previously downplaying systemic racism, Premo told the reform committee his department has done diversity and de-escalation training and plans to do more.

Premo also said he’s started to make changes to Malone’s police policies based on troubling incidents in other parts of New York involving cops and Black citizens. According to Premo, his officers are now prohibited from handcuffing anyone age 12 or younger or from pepper spraying anyone 15 or younger.

“That was based on the incident with the individual in Rochester that was nine years old, handcuffed and pepper-sprayed. I saw that on TV and cringed and said we need to address that and I finally got around to addressing it.”

Malone’s three reform meetings have been about law enforcement, but they’ve also led to a broader debate about racism. The latest draft of Malone’s police reform plan calls specifically for more cultural diversity training to address systemic racism.

The final plan doesn’t include a word that some advocated for to describe the seriousness of systemic racism. An earlier draft said, “the systematic issues that plague all communities, like those in the village of Malone, take decades to create.” The final draft removed the word plague and replaced it with the word “face,” which Kennedy Jarvis was disappointed by. Jarvis is a Black woman who lives in Malone.

“I strongly feel that [systemic racism] does plague this town, whether they see it or admit it. There’s just plenty of examples that I’ve faced in my life and that I know other people of different races or sexualities, or whatever it may be, have faced.”

Other Black residents said they felt welcome in Malone and praised the local police. “I’ve seen racism,” said Alex Morman. “I’ve seen where cops treat you different, and I’ve seen where people treat you different, but I don’t think this is the worst place of racism that I’ve ever experienced.”

Speaking at this week’s meeting, Precious Cain agreed that local law enforcement has earned a lot of trust. She said pushing for a better reform plan was not an attack on the department.

“The unanimous or overwhelming consensus is that the Malone Village Police have been exemplary in their service and their professionalism and we’d like to continue that trend,” said Cain.

After the meeting, Cain said more diversity training and better policies will help police do their job – keeping officers and the public safe.

“They need to make these split-second decisions and these split-second decisions can result in someone living or dying and that’s a tremendous responsibility.”

Given that the final plan came together within weeks of the April 1 due date, Cain she felt the new plan is a lot better and she called the discussion about racism in Malone “refreshing.”

The final plan calls for a lot of work going forward. Malone officials have committed to developing new policies for handling hate crimes. They’ve promised to hold more public outreach events and the plan also recommends creating a diversity and antiracism committee so the police department and community to keep the conversation going.

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