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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking back our police

This year's graduation weekend seemed louder than most -- I was awakened around 4:30 in the morning by the sounds of partying, partying so widespread that I couldn't even pinpoint its location.  It's rare that I call in a noise complaint, but I didn't want to have to wait until past sunrise to get back to sleep, so I didn't see another option.  I heard the police arrive and start using their amplification system to get the attention of the revelers, and the effect was like throwing water on an oil fire -- the kids got louder every time the cops spoke.  It took awhile to settle them down.

I suppose I could have called the university police instead, but experience tells me that they would have kept me on the phone longer (I wasn't asked my name or specific address, just where the noise was), and they would have been less helpful.  It's not that the men and women who work on that force are less professional, they just have zero obligation to respond to me, because they don't work for me. The town police do work for town residents, and the difference is striking.

Try this experiment, like I did a couple of years ago:  identify an intersection that is patrolled by both town and SUNY police, and try to submit a FOIL request for data about arrests and traffic stops nearby.  When I attempted this, the town police accepted my request, told me it could take up to seven days to process, and had my detailed report in less than two.  Over at SUNY, I spent fifteen minutes on the phone with a sergeant who interrogated me about what I wanted the data for, tried to talk me out of it, and wouldn't even give up the identity of the information officer for the college.  I was so aggravated that I submitted a written complaint about the SUNY officer, and a written compliment about the dispatcher to processed my request for the town.

The difference, of course, is that the town police has a citizen police commission, and five elected officials, overseeing it.  SUNY cops have . . . some kind of structure, which goes up the line to the chancellor or the state police, but with no input from the community.  Which might be fine, if they didn't patrol beyond the borders of the campus.

But the officers want to widen their jurisdiction even more, and statewide their union is holding communities hostage until the state legislature acts.  Here in New Paltz, they are no longer helping out with parade detail, although apparently they will still be handing out speeding tickets off-campus.  I imagine that's a money-maker for their department, while parades are not.

New Paltz Supervisor Susan Zimet is proud that she helped get the SUNY peace officers police powers some years ago.  I think it was a terrible idea.  We have a police force, entirely within the heart of our community, over which we have no control or oversight.  I'm sure the situation is the same for many campuses around the state.  I think it's time we lobby the state to change that.

Colleges don't need police, they need peace officers.  Some municipalities need police, particularly ones with colleges, and those campuses should be paying the town or village (or state, when no local force exists) to provide police protection of their grounds.  This would require a significant increase in our local police force, but it would be paid for by the college, and its existing officers could be folded into our present force.

SUNY New Paltz is a huge benefit to our community, but it comes at a price.  They don't pay taxes.  They don't have to ask for permission when they want to build.  They don't have to participate in the community, and under the past president, the one who mused that the residents of a prison town don't expect to use those facilities so why should we expect access to the college, that participation was muted.  That participation varies by administration, and that's a bigger problem.  The problem of the police is simpler to understand: we should have local control, and towns and villages with their own departments should be lobbying together to take that control back.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Enemies all around us

Trying to make advances in education in New Paltz is about as futile as the attempts of the Dana├»des to fill a tub with water to wash their sins away.  In fact, as this week's budget vote shows, even trying to minimize the cuts to education is mostly unacceptable.

Putting it another way, trying to ensure that New Paltz remains affordable for the people who live here and wish to use real estate as an investment in this community is damned near impossible.  In fact, as this week's budget vote shows, we very nearly saw an unacceptably large tax hike get shoved down our throats.

Two sides of the same coin, and it's the same old coin, despite the extra wrinkles thrown in by the tax cap.  Education is part of the long-term planning we make as a society, but that doesn't mean diddly to someone who is fighting to fend off foreclosure or only bought that house because they were told that rental income is "passive" in some alternate reality.

It's a crappy system.  New York State has abdicated its obligation under its own constitution to provide education, shifting it, as our spineless legislators always do, onto the local municipalities and taxpayers.  But even if the state did its job, that would not make the ballooning costs magically stop ballooning.

This anti-budget message went viral on Facebook.
What I think I'm seeing is related to the so-called anti-intellectualism movement, and might actually help me explain why that idea isn't entirely without merit.

This week's budget proposal exceeded the tax cap, and only 60% of those bold budgets got passed statewide, while something near 99% of the budgets within the cap requirements were approved.  Just as they did with the middle school renovation, the board worked really hard on explaining why they needed this money, how important it is, and what bad things would happen if this didn't pass.

And that's where the problem begins.  I don't think people are actually opposed to education, nor do I think people are really offended by intellectual pursuits, but boy do they hate snobbery.

Now I'm more educated that many Americans, and much less so than many New Paltz residents, and from where I stand it seems that each degree a person earns beyond the first has a chance of injecting some snobbery into their attitude.  The way it's expressed is through an unspoken message, "My idea is correct.  I know more than you do about this subject, so obviously if you disagree with me it's because you don't understand what I am saying.  There is no valid reason for you to disagree other than your own ignorance.  I shall try to explain this in small words your uneducated brain can understand, because once you do you will bow to my superior intellect."

The problem is, there are other points of view, and this approach dismisses those views as ignorant.  Given the amount of time that the board spends researching these subjects, it's understandable that they and their supporters (which include me) believe that this budget was the best possible option.  But to approach the problem as if you already have dismissed all of the arguments and this should be a foregone conclusion forgets one fact:

Their vote does not depend upon your knowledge.

Do I think it's sad that Highland's budget was defeated by people who can't spell?  I sure do.  But it wasn't defeated by people without education, it was defeated by people who vote.  The voters have the power to deny you what you want, and as Robert McNamara notes in The Fog of War, the best way to deal with that dynamic is to empathize with the enemy.  (I'm using "enemy" loosely here to describe the people who have the power to deny, in this case the school district voters.)

How much empathy was shown for the naysayers?  Did we:

  • imagine the fear of someone on a fixed income who sees a tax increase which is twice the Social Security hike for the year?
  • ask for their help in lobbying for a new way to fund education?
  • talk to them about why we insist on negotiating multi-year contracts with the unions, which tie the hands of future boards by making up to 75% of the school budget contractual and thus untouchable?
  • work with them to find ways the community can help make up for the quality programs that are being cut?
New Paltz sees itself as a battleground, and thus it is.  There will always be people without children living here, and people who only use properties to make money, and their views will always be exercised in the voting booth.  It may not be fair that this is the only local budget subject to such scrutiny, it's the system until we can get it changed, so maybe it's time to start empathizing with the enemy rather than just drawing new battle lines.