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Schenectady Leaders Prepare For Police "Redesign" Discussions

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford
Lucas Willard
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford

Between now and April 2021, New York communities are being asked to “reinvent” their police departments, under a directive issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard asked public officials in Schenectady for their thoughts on the policy.

After weeks of protests nationwide against police brutality, Governor Cuomo and the Democrat-led New York State Legislature passed the “Say Their Name” agenda, which allows for greater transparency of police personnel records, bans chokeholds by police, prohibits false race-based 911 calls, and codifies an existing executive order to give the state Attorney General authority to investigate fatal police encounters.

Speaking on WAMC on June 15th, Governor Cuomo said he wouldn’t tell communities what their police should look like…

“But you have to come up with a redesign plan with everybody at the table, you have to pass it through a legislative, so it's not a dictatorial exercise, and it has to be done in nine months.“

Communities that do not comply risk losing state funding.

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy recently announced an executive order that would ban police use of chokeholds and knee-to-neck holds, requires officers to intercede and report all uses of force, and mandates training requirements for de-escalation, implicit bias, and systemic racism.

McCarthy has said the order underlines practices already used by the Schenectady Police Deparmtent.

During a press conference Wednesday, WAMC asked McCarthy about the governor’s calls to “reimagine” the police.

“The recent events have created a greater focus on it. But Schenectady has been part of that on an ongoing basis, in terms of community police, outreach, and just trying to do innovative things that better leverage public safety dollars in greater buy-in from the community, so they respect police officers, that they respect firefighters, they respect public employees and the services that are delivered by this city,” said McCarthy.

Police Chief Eric Clifford said he is having conversations that “relate to every aspect” of the governor’s directive.

“From training, from policy reviews, and then conversations with the community members. We’re looking forward to assembling a group, as the governor directed, of community members, stakeholders, so they can give us feedback on what they would like to see,” said Clifford.

The city says the Schenectady Police Department collects and analyzes use-of-force data daily.

Clifford said restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have made it difficult to schedule an in-person police-community meeting.

The sentiment was echoed by Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, a member of the all-Democratic Schenectady city council.

“Once we kind of get everything squared away with this pandemic, we’ll start having some more in-person meetings and we’ll see what can come of it. But I’m very supportive of Chief Clifford and what he’s been doing so far,” said Zalewski-Wildzunas.

Councilor Marion Porterfield looks forward to more dialogue about how to improve policing in a city with a troubled past.

“There’s some basic intimidation, frankly, that people feel that I think that we can together work and change that. Because all of us want the same thing. We want a safe community, we want the police to be there to protect and to serve, and we want people not to be afraid so that when the police are called that it’s a negative outcome. So we will be working together to make sure that that happens. And as I’m sure you know, many, many groups have a voice at the table. So all of those voices will need to come together and come up with a plan that really works for our city,” said Porterfield.

Like other Capital Region communities, Schenectady has an independent Civilian Police Review Board. The board may report to the city council or mayor, but does not have subpoena power nor is it allowed to participate in internal investigations.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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