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.


Martin McPhillips said...

"SUNY New Paltz is a huge benefit to our community,"

Eh. I used to think that, but now I think that a line has been crossed where it's a serious detriment. I like having students around, but the institution itself is a dog, with fleas.

"...but it comes at a price."

The Soviet architecture alone is a deep aesthetic price to pay. That glass landing craft added on to the SUB mausoleum was a nice sort of "final straw" touch.

As far as your noise problems, the stories I could tell about the East Village. One gets conditioned, but there are methods of responding to a chronic situation. One always first attempts daylight reasoning with the agent of your despair. This does not, alas, always work. Then comes instilling fear of repercussions on the premise of "I asked you nicely, but you spurned my neighborly plea for civility." The bottom line is that you want to make it more unpleasant for them to do it than not to. But on a graduation weekend, when it's the last hurrah, so to speak, that's going to be a tough case.

TPW said...

I agree that buying a house in the green zone carries certain expectations of behavior, and that this is the worst weekend of the year for that sort of behavior. This is the first year they've managed to rouse me from my sleep, though. My wife has industrial-class ear plugs, but I usually sleep through the fun. The incident simply reminded me that we have an extra police force in this town, one that adds much less value than some people suggest. The members might be competent, but without a chain of command that leads into the community, that competence is hidden behind an uncaring bureaucracy.

Martin McPhillips said...

Police can be delicate creatures. Often very good people, but not always. The new chief on campus is a very responsible-seeming man who was hired away from the NPPD. He was a Lt. Detective, I think. A sensible and respectful person from appearances. I don't think that he would be the problem, but he's probably going to fit into the program up there, rather than buck it.

My policy with police is to only ever call them when it's the last option. I think they like it that way, but probably appreciate occasional calls for lesser matters when nothing else is happening, to break the monotony. I don't think that most police officers sit around in happy anticipation of big juicy major crimes, and prefer a quiet shift.

I gather that most of the action in New Paltz comes after midnight downtown, when things are well-fueled by booze and drugs. I'm usually in bed by eleven, though I've occasionally been alerted in the wee hours to the presence of some carousing lads on the lane.

SUNY, like a lot of NY outfits, was once a humbler and more responsible entity in the tradition of the great Empire State. But that was a long time ago. Principles -- like neighborliness, accomodation, reciprocity -- have deteriorated. Bureaucracy stops serving the institution and serves itself and then becomes the institution. (I had a student complain to me that the job she took and was really getting necessary experience from was not allowed to be counted as an internship, so she was expected to quit it, stop getting paid, so that she could go be an unpaid intern, and I think while paying the college for the privilege. In times gone, I suspect there could have been an accomodation.)

It's not likely that SUNY will ever leave New Paltz, though there was, way back, talk of closing campuses. My instinct would be to encourage them to leave if there was even a hint that it was possible, but I think most people around here would want to start a committee to "Keep SUNY in New Paltz." I'm not a snob. I do like students (well, I like the idea of students). But the institution itself has lost any sense of shame and has become just a big glob of bureaucratic glop. Not my idea of anything special or something to prize.

TPW said...

As Jason West is wont to say, this is a factory town, and the college is the factory. I like what the school offers this town, and believe it would be devastating if it were to close. I also think the school should not be in a position to ignore its community if its current administration is so inclined -- it's an embedded part of the community and should never, ever be given privileged status.

Martin McPhillips said...


Have you read that incredible op-ed piece written by Zimet in this last issue of the Stalinpaltz Downwind-Crapper?

Terence Ward said...

I did read it, every word. Not everything which is long is "tl;dr" after all.

Martin McPhillips said...

I hope I wasn't misunderstood to mean "incredible" in any positive sense of the word. I just thought that it was a softer choice than "deranged."