Board scraps vote on police chief search contract

Leigh Wenske is the interim chief of the Saranac Lake Police Department. He was supposed to retire last month, but is sticking around until the village can hire a new chief. This process may take a while, village Manager John Sweeney said. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Village Board chose to not vote on a contract with a statewide organization to aid in its search for a new police chief after several members of the public spoke out against the group and its leader.

The village is looking to hire a new police chief. Former Chief James Joyce stepped down to a sergeant position for family-related reasons in May after serving in that position for just over a year. On Monday, the village board agenda included a vote on a $6,000 contract with the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police to search for and evaluate candidates for the position.

Several members of the public — mostly members of the High Peaks Democratic Socialists of America group — attended the meeting to oppose the contract, pointing to public statements from NYSACOP Executive Director Patrick Phelan in which he denied the existence of systematic racism in policing.

Board members didn’t move to bring the contract up for discussion, which meant the board members couldn’t cast votes on whether to approve it.

Trustee Tom Catillaz made a motion to discuss the bill, but the motion failed because no other board member seconded it. There was light applause from the crowd, some of whom later said they were pleasantly surprised by the board’s decision.

Village Manager John Sweeney said he had suggested contracting with NYSACOP because the process of hiring a police chief is very specialized and complicated.

Saranac Lake Police Department Acting Chief Leigh Wenske was supposed to retire on Aug. 31 after 24 years in law enforcement. He’s sticking around as the department’s head, but Sweeney said he’d like to get on to his retirement soon.

Public opposition

High Peaks DSA co-Chair Erin Cass said the board should vote against the contract because she believes NYSACOP’s director creates a bad culture at his organization.

In a tweet she read, Phelan denied systemic racism in policing exists, calling it a “lie.”

Cass pointed out the the village board itself acknowledged that systematic racism exists in policing in a statement it made after the police killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020.

“If we want this area to be more welcoming and open to people of color, it is a bad idea to have an organization leading the charge for our new police chief to be led by someone who denies that racism exists in policing,” Cass said. “How you vote on this is going to show how you stand on the matter of racism in policing.”

Cass mentioned that NYSACOP had Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke speak at an event a few years ago, and described him as a man with a history of human rights abuses.

Cass also noted Phelan has denied the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, adding that she thinks that’s a bad opinion for him to have if he’s to be in charge of choosing the person who will be responsible for public safety for the village.

Local activist Trevor Sussey said he’s worked with men affected by racist policing policies, such as broken window policing and the war on drugs. Systemic racism in policing is very real to them, Sussey said.

“I think $6,000 is a waste,” Sussey said.

Local activist David Lynch did not like that two of NYSACOP’s top sponsors are police consulting company Lexipol — which the village is contracting with as it updates its police policies — and military and law enforcement weapons technology manufacturer Axon.

Lynch said these companies promote “illegitimate practices,” like using “excited delirium” as a medical diagnosis, despite it being rejected by public health organizations and being shown to disproportionately affect Black men in police custody.

“You hung banners that said ‘racism is a public health crisis.’ The people you are choosing to work with are exacerbating that public health crisis,” Lynch said.

The hunt goes on

Sweeney said after the meeting that the board not voting to approve the NYSACOP contract should not greatly impact the search for a new police chief.

“It doesn’t hurt my feelings one way or another,” he said.

Trustee Rich Shapiro wondered if RENZ Consulting, which is working with the Adirondack North Country Association on its Community Policing Initiative, could do the “headhunting” in place of NYSACOP.

But Sweeney said he’s unsure RENZ is able to do the vetting for a police chief, which is specialized.

Sweeney said the police chief hiring process is complicated. The village can only hire off the Franklin County Civil Service list. People get on the list by taking the county civil service exam and the village can only hire one of the top three finalists.

But there’s currently no active list in Franklin County. Saranac Lake cannot hire from the Essex County civil service list, even though almost half of the village is in that county.

The list probably won’t be made for a while, Sweeney said. He anticipates the test won’t happen until the spring, and then it will take weeks until the list is finalized.

Sweeney said there will need to be three or more applicants for a certified list.

In the absence of a certified list, Sweeney said the village can hire a provisional chief, but this person would have to compete to be in the top three finalists when the county is able to put together a certified list eventually.

Sweeney said it’s hard to get people who want to apply for positions in the North Country because it is a remote area and the job pays less than it would in metropolitan areas.

A police chief also needs several years in a supervisory role at a certified police department, Sweeney said, and New York State Police are not certified police officers. The village can’t just advertise the listing out on a job search website, they have to go through civil service.

Anyone who wants to apply for the SLPD chief position will need to pass that exam and be in the top three finalists to be hired.


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