Police body cameras focus of debate

Speakers ask city councilors to speed up acquisition for RPD, improve process for complaints

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Concerns over progress in the Rome Police Department obtaining body cameras as well as issues about a lack of follow-up for complaint and arrest cases were questions raised during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s Common Council meeting.

Businesswoman Sarita Ruiz opened the public speakers portion of the meeting — which was held via livestream — asking for more “open dialogue” with councilors during public sessions and about the RPD’s “lack of body worn camera acquisition.”

“RPD already spoke with vendors and presented themselves as working with a vendor,” Ruiz said. “They said there were advantages of leasing (equipment) rather than buying. I believe this is the obvious choice, so where will the funding come from and when will it be acquired by? There is no goal date or acquisition time.”

She said waiting for councilors to act was like “waiting for a pot of water to boil.” She added the council and mayor “need to find the funding — don’t wait for grant money you know we’re not eligible for.”

The use of body cameras by police officers is part of Rome’s Police Reform Plan, mandated by the governor to seek more collaboration with the community. Other measures include internal accountability, specialized mental health calls and ongoing community interaction.

First Ward Councilor John M. Sparace, during his councilor report, said the RPD has received four body cameras and have had them about two weeks. “They’re testing them out and working out the kinks with I.T. — they have up to 60 days, and then they’ll go from there,” said Sparace.

“We’re still looking for possible grant funds and have certain leads on things. You have to remember, these things are very costly,” he said. “Chief (Kevin C.) Beach is doing a great job in trying to move forward. We (the council) do support this, and hopefully can get moving as fast as we can.”

Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers said the council “can support body cams, but they have to be in the budget when it comes to the council. That said, I think the Capital Improvement Plan should include tech related to that. If it’s not in the works now, then it should be.”

Joya Stuckman, a long-time resident, activist and member of the Rome Chapter NAACP whose U-Haul truck and residence were defaced with racial slurs in September, expressed her concerns on behalf of community members of color. “There is still no clarity in the process of filing a report or charge against someone,” she said.

Following an investigation, Rome Police did charge a First Street resident with aggravated harassment for drawing a swastika and writing racially derogatory language on the side of Stuckman’s rented truck, but the case as since been dismissed at the county level “due to lack of evidence.”

“Appropriate steps are taken by the community — we are identifying the appropriate authorities, going to them and contacting board representatives, the commissioner of public safety, and constantly getting the same results — it’s just passing the buck. As a representative, we want to be taken seriously,” said Stuckman.

Stuckman said residents are met with “condescending tones and empty promises, and empathy that isn’t genuine when someone does get listened to,” when they seek help. “There seems to be a disconnect between the community and authorities. My questions to the council are, ‘What are you doing to reensure the public whether victims and aggressors have rights, which both sides do, and what is the process?’ If we file a charge, then nothing happens. There are victim impact programs and money put aside for such programs, and I would like something in place, so that we (community members) know who these people (and programs) are.”

In reference to filing a complaint and follow-up with police, Councilor Rogers explained that a case would go to the county District Attorney’s Office and that Rome Police would not have the “authority to fix it.” And as for open dialogue between residents and councilors during Council meetings, “The council meetings are a public meeting. We conduct our meetings the same way as other Common Councils conduct their meetings. They are not made for open dialogue.”

She said, “If you reach out to your individual councilors, department heads...that’s when you can have open dialogue. The meetings are structured that way so everyone can get a chance to speak... If you think there’s something the council needs to get done, then reach out to your councilor and have that conversation. We’re all here and available to listen.”

Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli added during her comments that a list of councilors’ phone numbers are available on the Common Council website. The site — which can be found at https://romenewyork.com/common-council/ — also includes email addresses for councilors.

In reference to the police reform plan, as for officers carrying business cards to distribute to residents if they have an interaction, “If that’s not being done yet, I think it’s important,” said Rogers. “...It’s something we should start sooner rather than later, and there’s no reason why officers can’t keep the business cards in their uniform pocket.”

In other business:

• Due to technical issues, the council could not meet in Common Council chambers as originally planned for Wednesday’s meeting and M.A. Polce is working on the issue. President Viscelli said they are working on having the May 12 meeting in the chambers, and then inviting the public into the chamber session for the following council meeting in May.

• Rogers said the Rome Shine Program, which was cancelled last year due to COVID-19, will commence this spring and has received Adirondack Bank as its sponsor. The program will run from May through September, and honor residents who “take special care of their properties and set an example for their neighborhoods, and show pride,” Rogers said. The Adirondack Bank sponsorship will allow for the purchase of gift cards from local businesses to award to residents. “Adirondack Bank will sponsor the purchase of all of gift cards from local businesses, which will help them out too,” the councilor said.

• Rogers also reminded the council and residents that while the impact of COVID-19 on schools, restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses has been given attention, “no one talks about the impact on local senior centers.” As a representative of South Rome Senior Center, the councilor said she’s received calls from the director and members, and they are “besides themselves” about senior centers remaining closed.

“For the most part, seniors are fully vaccinated, and elderly people have no external communication (social outlets) with other people,” said Rogers. “They are asking me for assistance to get senior centers open. Over the course of the last year, there has been zero guidance given to senior centers that I’m aware of. They are repeatedly told not yet — not even that, ‘We’re working on a plan.’ If you have elderly parents or grandparents, or aunts and uncles who are by themselves” social interaction is essential.

“I will keep working on my side, even if the centers have to open for limited hours and if they’re like schools, rely on lunches as well,” Rogers said.

• Seventh Ward Councilor A. Robert Tracy said the Finance Committee met earlier Wednesday to make progress on the Capital Improvement Plan. He said the council can expect legislation at either the next meeting or one to follow in May. Rogers pointed out a concern that the Rome Art and Community Center was not included in the capital plan, and Sixth Ward Councilor Riccardo D. Dursi Jr. said he hoped there would be an update on Rome Train Station. “Those buildings we seem to be neglecting or putting on the back-burner, so I’m concerned about these things (RACC as well), and I think we all are.” Tracy said City Treasurer David C. Nolan will give an update on that at the next meeting.

Resolutions and Ordinances:

• A resolution determining the proposed reconstruction and resurfacing of existing city streets and roads for purposes o the state Environmental Quality Review Act passed unanimously.

• A resolution authorizing an amendment to the 2020 Community Development Block Grant annual action plan’s spending plan to account for supplemental coronavirus aid relief and Economic Security (Cares) Act third-round funding was approved unanimously.

• A resolution authorizing an amendment to the 2021 general city budget calling for the transfer of funds for the purchase of ammunition by Rome Police was unanimously approved. Councilor Sparace said in speaking with Chief Beach, the police department can have a 12-18 month waiting period for ammunition, which is even needed by recruits to pass their entry exam.

• A resolution authorizing City Clerk Jean I. Grande to advertise a notice of a public hearing regarding the sale of a portion of property formerly known as Wright Park Manor and Woodhaven to Rome Industrial Corp. was unanimously passed, however, the ordinance authorizing the sale of the property for $390,000 was tabled.

• The council unanimously passed an ordinance authorizing the issuance of $2,373,000 in city bonds to pay for the cost of the reconstruction of various roads and streets throughout the city.

The next council meeting will be held Wednesday, May 12.

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