Committee seeking conversations about local policing

SARANAC LAKE — Want to talk about policing in Saranac Lake? Members of the village’s police interface committee are stationing themselves at farmers markets and gas stations to talk about anything and everything relating to local police issues.

PIC members are trying to speak with the public more as they get their committee “off the ground,” PIC Member Nigel Darrah said. The PIC was created in the spring of 2021 as part of the village’s state-mandated review and reform of policing policies. PIC Member Patrick Murphy said they are still figuring out how they can best serve in their role, and recently decided to be in the public to hear what people are thinking.

The five-member committee’s role is to be a conduit for communication between the police and the public that they serve. They listen to the community and relay what they hear anonymously to the police department and village board.

Members say they want to hear people’s thoughts on current police practices, potential new policies, news about the police department and try to answer questions people have about policing.

Last month, PIC members had hoped the public would show up to their July 14 meeting, the first after an SLPD officer, Aaron Sharlow, fatally shot Joshua Kavota, who had charged at Officer Gabby Beebe with a knife. But no one came. At this meeting, PIC members felt they probably didn’t advertise the meeting enough and committee member Trevor Sussy said they realized it would be more productive for them to approach the community, to be where people gather and have public presence. He said they want to keep these conversations casual, so people feel comfortable coming up to them.

Sussy has been at the Stewart’s Shops on Bloomingdale Avenue every week he can on Thursdays, from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

Other members of the PIC have been taking turns sitting at a table at the Saranac Lake Farmers Markets on Saturdays, and they plan to do this through the end of the summer.

Sussy said they have an “idealistic vision,” similar to the village’s new Help Desk Task Force. They gather get stories, ideas and questions from the community, and give them to village leaders to consider, answer or develop actions.

Darrah said the committee doesn’t make policy decisions, but informs the people who do about what the community wants, as well as informing the community about the policy decisions the village makes.

Meet the committee members

PIC Member Greg Landon said he has a background in human services — residential direct care, probation and security. He wants to help bridge the gap between the cops and the community.

“I want to be part of the solution to the public’s perception of police,” Landon said.

Darrah is an in-patient counselor at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers. He said he joined the interface committee because he sees that mental health and chemical dependency play a large role in people’s interactions with police.

Darrah said he wants to get law enforcement and treatment organizations like the one he works at on the same page.

“Helping people get the help they need and avoid the hurt and hardship that drugs and alcohol (cause),” Darrah said.

Right now, he sees the relationship as being a “toxic cycle.”

Darrah said he wants law enforcement to be a more appropriate tool in overcoming addiction — not seen as “good guys” necessarily, but as trustworthy.

Sussy said he works in special education, mostly with conduct disordered youth, so the mental health aspect of policing is important to him.

“I think there’s a lot of needs in the community that I’m not sure the community has a solution for addressing,” Sussy said.

Murphy said he joined the PIC because he interacted with the department in his former role as a village trustee. He’s now currently the deputy clerk/treasurer for the village and said he wants the police to see the committee he’s on as a resource to better their practices.

He said mental health and drugs are big issues for a lot of people. Murphy said he hopes to give a voice to people who are not heard enough — including people of color — and to relay their perspectives to the police and the people who set police policies.

PIC Member Justin Oliver, who is Black, said he’s lived in Saranac Lake for 19 years.

“Over the years I’ve had several unfavorable run-ins with the police,” Oliver said.

He also sometimes hears complaints from people of color about the police. Oliver added that things have changed a lot in the past two decades, but he wants to be part of continuing to change things for the positive.

What do people tell the PIC?

Darrah said several people have told him New York’s legalization of cannabis has taken a weight off of their chests. People who have spent their lives using cannabis and being terrified that it would get them sent to prison no longer feel “fight or flight” when they see police, he was told.

He said people tell him they want safe neighborhoods, and that police are a part of keeping neighborhoods safe, but they also say neighbors knowing each other and being connected goes a long way in community safety.

Darrah said some people he’s spoken with value the work police do now and others want improvements.

Several people brought up the fatal shooting by police at the local Stewart’s Shops in June and he said one person said they would have wanted one officer to draw their taser, and the other to draw their gun to try to end the attack without a death.

Others have told him the local police work well with people with special needs, contacting case workers instead of putting them in handcuffs.

Darrah said some people have said they want local judges to interact withe the public, as well as law enforcement. These elected justices have lots of power but not a lot of training, he said people have told him.

Sussy said from his conversations, he feels people want to see police handle drugs and crime more.

He’s also been surprised that housing — a lack of affordable housing — keeps coming up in these discussions about policing. He said it is shocking to hear about people’s living situations, some in unsafe and unkempt apartments.

Sussy finds it saddening to hear these stories about how people live in this community, and said that it is tough to not have a solution for the people he speaks with. He can just shake his head and pass their stories along to the village. Sussy said improving housing also requires enforcing laws — the land and building codes the village has.

Seeking more members

The PIC is seeking new members. There is currently room for two more members to meet the seven-member total. Sussy said if someone is interested in joining the committee to send him a letter of intent to policeinterface@saranaclakeny.gov.

Ultimately, the village board votes to approve new PIC members. The PIC is also looking for volunteers, too — people who will be involved, but not have a vote on the committee.


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