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After Police Reform Public Hearing, City Council Addresses Communication, Civility

City of Newburgh, NY seal
Courtesy of the City of Newburgh
City of Newburgh, NY seal

The City of Newburgh held a public hearing Monday night to present its draft report on police reform. It’s part of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requiring local police agencies to modernize their strategies and programs based on community input. After listening to public input, councilmembers weighed in with their thoughts.

First, there was a lot of discussion about a portion of the city’s adopted Right to Know law, under which information on community members was being collected via field activity sheets. Newburgh City Manager Joe Donat announced at the start of the public hearing that the measure was shelved.

“The reason other information was being requested was for us to keep diligent records of the interactions,” says Donat. “Nonetheless, I certainly understand the concerns out there, so this is, I guess you could say, tabled for the moment.”

That was welcome news to residents, but the all Democratic City Council could not reconcile how the data collection got to where it did. City Councilmember Karen Mejia says collecting personal information was not the intent of the Right to Know law.

“It was simply supposed to be the handing out of a business card,” says Mejia. “How it got comingled with the request for data, it’s, it’s a mystery to me.”

There were already supposed to be business cards printed up for officers to hand out, and that hasn’t yet happened. Councilmember Anthony Grice:

“I had asked for that data, however, I was not the only person that asked for that data. There were, I believe, some other elected officials and there were some leaders of some organization that asked for the data,” says Grice. “However, we never asked for the personal identification of that data of name and date of birth and address.”

Councilmembers talked about communication, or lack thereof, among city officials and, as City Councilmember Ramona Monteverde says, with the public.

“We have to get better with our messaging and how we engage the community for input. Unless we do that and we get that down, it’s going to be a moot point,” Monteverde says. “And I think, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing, the police reform.”

Councilmember Robert Sklarz:

“The gathering of this data was not nefarious, there was no hidden agenda. It was designed to gather information to improve policing,” Sklarz says. “Throughout this process, we may disagree on policies, we may disagree on procedures. 2020 is finally over. In 2021 we need to keep our discussions civil and professional.  There’s no place for vulgar name-calling of city staff on social media. We need to put that juvenile behavior behind us.”

Councilmember Omari Shakur launched a verbal attack on City Police Chief “Butch” Amthor, blaming him for the data collection and, more broadly, poor police community relations. Shakur has had issues with the police.

“Going forward, we need to see about a new police chief because, right now, he has destroyed it, I’m telling you right now,” Shakur says. “Listen to our community, if more people were able to speak tonight, they would tell you this man had destroyed our relationship with this community.”

Councilmember Patty Sofokles defended the police chief.

“I don’t know what to say more than I just don’t like the attacks, I really don’t. He’s a good guy. His intent is good,” Sofokles says. “Our city manager’s intent is good. Our corporation counsel, our…  I think we have a really good thing going on here, but just the little bit of negativity can destroy it.”

Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey:

“I think that the police chief has done some great work since he’s been here in August. I think that we all can disagree without being disagreeable,” says Harvey. “I understand some of Councilman Shakur’s sentiment and some of his point of view. I do think and agree with Councilman Sklarz and Councilmember Sofokles that there’s no room for verbal language, there’s no room for personal attacks.”

In the end, he says there are numerous positive aspect to the draft police reform package for his city, a plan that must be adopted by April 1. For more on the public hearing and community input click here.

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