Sunday, March 11, 2012

Looking at the police

The New Paltz Police Commission and town police department have been in the news a bit lately.  The very existence of the commission hangs in the balance.

Let the board budget

Town board members are concerned that the commission hamstrings their ability to budget.  I don't know the specifics, but if the commission's recommended police budget can't be changed before it's incorporated into the annual town budget, that would be bad.  I don't want my elected officials to feel like they can blame volunteers if a budget decision proves unpopular.  We should do whatever it takes to give our elected representatives the confidence they need when they vote on any aspect of the town budget.

One area where nobody feels they're in control is that of contractual increases.  Multi-year contracts get negotiated, and future budgets must simply accept their terms.  So why do we do it this way?  Why not instead only negotiate one-year contracts, as part of the budgeting process?  Because it's too hard?  Or because that way you can sell a bill of goods down to your successors and they will be able to throw up their hands and say, "It's the best we could do, because our hands are tied by the terms of this three-year-old contract."  Is there anything in any law that would prevent our representatives from only negotiating single-year contracts, for police and all town employees?  Is there anything to prevent the town from passing a law requiring only single-year contracts?

What role for the commission?

As for the police commission, this is a body which could do real good in the community if it didn't have to focus on the budget.  I see real value in a group of citizen volunteers actively independently investigating allegations and publishing their findings.  I've heard (and suspect it's true) that most complaints against officers are baseless; I think it could only help if we could see how often this is the case.

When I interviewed for a seat on the commission a couple of years ago, one council member said to me, "I don't care how many guys they're beating up in an alley."  That official's priority was fiscal.  So I say let's take the budgeting side and give it to the people who don't care who is getting beaten up (if anyone is), and let our citizen volunteers focus on protecting both citizens and officers from poor treatment and misinformation.

The commission could do quite a bit to enhance police-community relations.  Officers have frequently told me that people know their "television rights" and not their "real rights."  So let's educate people on the difference.  Teach them how to behave during a police encounter, such that they exercise their rights without inadvertently escalating a situation.  I had the now-Lieutenant once tell me not to film an intoxicated individual.  I wasn't and didn't even have a camera, and frankly making a video of a guy puking on himself is pretty mean, but it's neither illegal nor is it unconstitutional.  I personally believe he give an inappropriate order; the chief and I disagree on that point.  The commission could preempt a lot of issues like these by clarifying departmental policies and educating the public about how officers will behave.  Education and transparency make for a safe community.

Cameras here and there

Commission members recently requested access to the car-cams which record police activity.  They are presently used for training purposes, not discipline, the chief told them.  What a missed opportunity!  Let's get these tapes into commission hands as soon as possible.  In fact, let's raise the transparency bar, and make all police video recordings available unless there is a reason not to.  Specifically, I would like to see a policy in which every video is posted online.  The chief and perhaps some others would be able to keep any specific footage from public view, but the individual who makes the call must be identified, along with the reason for the redaction.  That name and reason (which could be as simple as "evidence in an ongoing investigation") would be posted online in place of the video, and the footage would be reviewed annually to determine if the reason still held.

Sound like a lot of work?  Shouldn't be.  The officers know what goes down and could flag some encounters for review, and the rest would be posted automatically.

On a related note, police have recommended cameras in public places to help with safety and investigations.  I don't mind being constantly under observation if the police don't.  After all, as the owner of Jack's Deli remarked in this week's New Paltz Times, if you don't have anything to hide, there's no problem.


Martin McPhillips said...

This merits a serious discussion, Terence. And I have some serious things to say about it.

BUT, the last time there was a serious discussion here, the two posts and their comment threads were disappeared. That's your right, as blog proprietor, to remove a discussion for any reason or no reason. But that was a few hours of effort on my part and effort on the part of others that went down the drain.

I'd like to see those posts and their threads restored. And I would also like to know (though I'm not placing the burden on you) what the disposition of the Don Kerr case is. Hoping not to sound querulous, but the Kerr arrest, depending on whether there was any actual basis for it, could determine much about the future of policing in New Paltz.

TPW said...

I removed those because I discovered that I can't trust my neighbors to focus on the facts rather than the personalities, Martin. This blog is about grown-up topics; for people who just wish to be cruel to each other, I recommend requesting membership in the New Paltz Facebook group. It's a wonderful way to find out how many of one's neighbors who profess that they wish to make the world a better place are actually small-minded, petty in-fighters who cloak themselves in intellectual superiority.

So no, those posts won't return, but neither will this one go away. Feel free to act accordingly.

Martin McPhillips said...

There should be a police commission. It should help develop PD budgets. The town board must have the final say. The commission will be annoying to the police and also to the public, but that is the nature of the beast. It should have the cooperation of the NPPD, which should appreciate the oversight if only because internal review in a small municipal department is a sticky and personal matter to begin with. It helps to have an outside panel put relatively fresh eyes on department practices and behaviors. The chief knows that while it takes more time than he would like to give it, the commission also relieves him of the burden of a cloistered bureaucratic existence.

On *public* surveillance cameras (as opposed to cameras used by businesses), Chief Snyder told the village board that he favors them and that there is no expectation of privacy on Main Street. But does that mean there should be an expectation of being surveilled? I don't think so. I think it changes the relationship between the citizen and the state to have the citizen on a police camera simply for being present on the street. The excuse for it is that it helps in solving crime and catching criminals. I'm sure it does. Even better, add microphones that can pick up conversations so that if anyone slips up and says "you want to go back to my place and blah blah blah," you have something to build on. No, let's try to get by without cameras. Fewer than 1% of the persons under surveillance will be criminals; so there's something weird, in a small town, about treating the remaining more than 99% as though they might be criminals too, pending review of the instant replay.

I would like to return for a moment to the Kerr case. I suspect that Kerr and his attorney are winding their way through the process and don't need any public attention, but the public has never been given sufficient information to know whether or not the arrest of the president of the school board had any real probable cause basis. The local newspapers seem to have little interest in finding out, and their reporters and editors probably have no idea what the issues are to begin with.

The last we heard, Kerr's court appearances were postponed. The Ulster County DA has the case, but the question is: Does he have a case? I'll wager a guess, just a guess, that he does not, and is kicking this can down the road until it can be nudged off the docket, either by a dismissal or some ridiculous plea to a meaningless misdemeanor that saves face all around.

But the question remains: On what basis was Kerr arrested? So far all that we know is that he was handed a package by the U.S. Postal Service that *it* knew probably contained marijuana. Kerr accepted the package at his place of business. It was addressed to someone else. We were never told whether Kerr pretended to be that person or whether he pretended to know that person or even if he did know that person or showed any guilty knowledge or behavior in accepting the package. All that we know so far is that Kerr *might* well have been arrested for the good faith act of being a neighbor.

That is a problem for the public, in my opinion, and it's more of a problem now because the NPPD and the Ulster County DA have said nothing since (that I've seen) that satisfactorily explains Kerr's arrest. The best information I have is that he was handed the package and then arrested for simply taking it into his hands. He did not, and was not allowed, to carry that package away and do something with it, like open it (that's probable cause for an arrest), or leave it where he thought the person it was addressed to would find it (that's not probable cause for an arrest).

Meanwhile, Kerr has had his life turned upside down. I think that citizens of New Paltz ought to be interested in whether or not a prima facie act of neighborliness can and will be construed by the New Paltz Police Department as sufficient for a felony arrest.