Public weighs in on police reform plan

More effort to improve diversity, mental health services needed, speakers say, on state-mandated report

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From needing input from those in the community feeling under-served by law enforcement and a more detailed plan for responding to mental health situations, to more efforts toward racially diverse recruitment, local residents weighed in on the city’s proposed Rome Police Reform Plan during a public hearing held via audio stream Wednesday.

According to Police Chief Kevin C. Beach’s first draft of the proposed police reform plan, Rome Police is considering several reforms regarding body-worn cameras, internal accountability, mental health calls and community interaction as part of the governor’s request to seek more collaboration with the community.

The first draft of the department’s reform plan is available for public viewing on the agency’s website at www.romepd.com. The report goes in-depth on several existing policies within the police department, as well as concerns expressed by the public and the reform committee.

Rome’s Community Advisory Committee was formed in July and started meeting in mid-August. The draft was put together over the course of roughly eight meetings, with input from other local organizations, including the Rome chapter of the NAACP.

Beach opened the hearing by explaining the process of the city forming the Community Advisory Committee and efforts in working with the committee over the past several months to develop the plan.

He said members of the public can also email comments about the plan to policereform@romepd.com. Those without computer access may also request a paper copy of the reform plan by calling 315-336-7659. A link to make public comments is also now available on the Common Council website at https://romenewyork.com/common-council/.

“I believe we have one of the finest organizations of dedicated men and women in the country, and I’m proud of their work,” said the chief. “But there’s always room for improvement and that’s why we’re here tonight.”

Beach said the goal was to have the reform plan address and include people of different ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds, as well as representatives of the homeless community, local leaders, etc. It addresses racial biases and the training of officers, changes to improve the relationship between police and the public, and includes policies that were presented to officers, followed by suggestions and comments on how to change, improve or update the policies. New policies were also included in the plan.

“There are 500 law enforcement agencies in the state and every one is unique. Our focus was primarily on three major areas: current and future training on racial bias and use of force; (our) current role in dealing with mental health issues — when, where and how we respond; third, body cameras,” said Beach. “Our goal is to identify vendors and establish a policy, and find funding. We already met with vendors and we’re expecting the delivery of test cameras by about March 8.”

The chief ended his comments by stating the plan also addresses minority recruitment, officer wellness, community outreach, use of social media, etc.

Dr. Barbara Lee M. Pfendler Ruiz, licensed clinical social worker, was the first member of the public to comment, stating that after 35 years in the mental health field, and even looking back onto her childhood, that criminal justice reformation has been needed and is glad that it’s part of the governor’s request.

Pfendler Ruiz agreed with Chief Beach that the team has developed a comprehensive plan, but that most of those who would be impacted by the plan most likely did not read or respond to it.

“The interesting thing is that the people who need to read it, didn’t read it even though it was on the internet,” said Dr. Ruiz. “They should have because some things we needed to take a look at. But in all — and I have reviewed each page (about 130) — it’s well written because I can tell each person discussed the issues of mental health, recruitment...I have ideas of my own for recruitment. What I might add, while the city has begun to grow and we know new companies are coming into the city, one way to keep them coming in is to have much more diversity in the police force. I suggest that police go even outside Oneida County to recruit people for the police force.”

After the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill, Dr. Ruiz said it’s important that the city recognizes that racial bias is everywhere, especially with the release of several FBI reports since the investigation.

“It’s very clear that racial bias is in pretty much most of police work and there’s nothing in this plan that talks about how we can deal with racial bias,” she said.

The social worker ended her comments addressing mental health issues.

“...Being in the field, I first and foremost believe police departments are basically left out in the cold, and I know they don’t have the assistance most of the time that they need,” she said. “Many patients (of mine) have seen the police and have said they came to their home. To be honest with you, that reform should have a huge amount of providers on that list and I don’t see that. To say that MCAT (Mobile Crisis Assessment Team) doesn’t have the time — it’s an excuse. We are responsible (for patients) 24/7 — that’s why insurance companies pay us. The police department or mayor needs comprehensive list of most of us, and you need to know we’re here at all times.”

Resident Sarita Ruiz also focused on mental health issues in her comments, and said she believes many problems involve MCAT staffing issues. She later stated that especially concerning the response to domestic violence cases, police need better communication with each other in order to protect the victim.

“In order to handle the high amount of calls police get for mental health each year, they should assign an officer as a crisis officer, instead of relying solely on MCAT funding (for additional staffing) that may or may not come through,” Ruiz said. “And I echo the use of providers available — that comes with the job.”

As for body cameras, “I want an honest and concerted effort to get funding,” she said.

As part of the reform plan, Ruiz said she also did not see a “clear” statement that there is a need to increase diversity in the police force.

“You can’t force” minorities “to apply, but you need to do more” as far as recruitment, “than to just post something on Facebook,” said Ruiz.

She said the plan also includes teaching Spanish to officers rather than hiring an Hispanic officer.

“Won’t these officers be paid for learning a new language, and who’s paying for it?,” she asked. “Money would be better allocated to obtain an actual Spanish-speaking officer, or Hispanic officer for that matter — they need to be familiar with the culture.”

Ruiz also called for the termination of any officer who has publicly shown racism through social media.

They “should be removed immediately, and we’ve already seen this,” she said. “You can train an officer not to be biased, but these things happen when someone is a child.”

Jacqueline Nelson, president of the Rome Branch NAACP, said because the police reform advisory committee was formed by the city, Rome NAACP “couldn’t get a seat at the table.”

She said, however, that members did meet with Chief Beach about three times and that the organization as a whole was grateful that he went over the policies included in the plan.

After taking about a week-and-a-half to review the reinvention collaborative written by the chief...”Many of us found it didn’t reflect the spirit of what the governor implied by the executive order,” Nelson said. “The title of the draft doesn’t reflect the context which was to reinvest, reinvent and collaborate...No discussion or concerns from the advisory committee were added or it said no additional action was needed. This is not what the minutes of those meetings showed.”

Nelson further questioned why some comments made by the NAACP on the policies were not included.

“Our focus group came up with concerns we had about the social media policy and officers posting racist comments and pictures on personal pages,” said the president. “As far as filing complaints, there was no one there” to go to “and there was no clear-cut way to do so or how long it would take.”

Nelson also asked how often officers would receive diversity training, who is doing the training and where it would be.

The NAACP believes “no matter the color of someone’s skin, where they work, their financial situation, their religion, who they love — that don’t matter, and everyone should be treated equally,” said Nelson. “There are people who are afraid to turn to law enforcement or wish for the right officer because he or she will understand them, and this needs to stop. I’ve asked to meet with Common Council President (Stephanie) Viscelli, Mayor (Jacqueline M.) Izzo and Chief Beach, because this plan is not what the governor had in mind. I’m not blaming the police — they have a hard job and put their lives on the line every day, so let’s give them the resources and training they need so they can’t be accused falsely of anything, and do this as a community, together.”

Life-long Rome resident Robert Angelicola, who was a member of the focus group organized by the NAACP, said progress was made on some of the issues discussed with Chief Beach, and his concern is that while the plan is comprehensive and covers some important issues, those issues are challenging and will take much effort from the community, police and the city.

“This is a nationwide challenge and it’s something that didn’t just start, so it’s not going to be easy to solve this,” Angelicola said. “Working cooperatively and openly is the only way to address this. I believe some important opportunities were missed in this document. One was to build trust and a relationship between the police and community they serve, and parts of this community feel they are mistreated and under-served. That’s the reality and we need to face up to it. There’s a portion of the community that feels it’s not represented within the police department, and government in general.”

Angelicola went on to say that he agreed with Nelson, that some things discussed with the focus group were not included in the plan.

“My concern is if the committee knows there were concerns on a topic, and police believe no problem exists,” he said. “While some problems may not exist for all of us, they do for some...I think we need more people who don’t feel well served involved in the process. It isn’t just a matter of color, it’s a matter of color and status, whether you speak English, if you have a job, where you live — many things affect people and we need to do a better job so we understand how people feel. In speaking with people who are affected by this, their feeling is that they’re not being represented, and that feeling isn’t the same for everyone. They feel they don’t have voice and no one is there to support them. We need to talk to these people who feel under-served and make them part of the process.”

Brendan Dunn, of Clinton, addressed the use of force by police and police brutality, particularly during demonstrations. Dunn said he was part of a peaceful demonstration in the city back in October, and was arrested. He accused the police of aggressively pursing teen-agers and children playing football at Geiger Field at the time, as some were tackled to the ground. As he began filming the incident, Dunn said he was tackled to the ground and kneeled on by officers.

“I think other people who deal with interactions with police and racial profiling, it looks like racism doesn’t exist in Rome, and that has to be addressed,” said Dunn. “There’s something fundamental to the problems in Rome and across the country — black folks and others of color are treated differently by police officers or police as an institution as white folks, and I’m saying that as a white person. I echo the people in those groups in Rome who said people were intentionally left out of this process. The NAACP and more people of color and black folks, and the working class, are on the receiving end of racial profiling on a daily basis. They need to be a central part of this discussion.”

Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli concluded the public hearing noting the residents with concerns or ideas involving the police reform plan, to reach out to their individual councilors and Frank Anderson, chair of the city’s Diversity Committee.

Public comments made via email will be posted on the Common Council website, as well as a recording of the comments made during the hearing.

The deadline to submit comments on the draft Rome Police Reform Plan is March 3, to allow time for consideration and review before the council votes on the plan March 10, and it is submitted to the state by April 1.

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