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Schenectady Activist Credited With Idea For Police Reform Policy Lauded By Governor

Schenectady Police headquarters
Lucas Willard
Schenectady Police Headquarters

During his State of the State address last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo praised a reform by the Schenectady Police Department to establish a citizen panel to review potential hires. 

Leaders in the City of Schenectady credit community activist and Executive Director of the COCOA House William Rivas for pitching the idea. 

WAMC's Lucas Willard spoke with Rivas over Zoom about Schenectady's Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative and how the discussion surrounding police reform has progressed over the last several months.

William Rivas:   
So much about police reform has been talked about for years. With the Black Lives Matter movement in the protests and things that have been happening over the last four to five months, it's really highlighted the nation's need to create change. And, you know, what I feel about what our police forces done is, I feel like they've kind of opened their doors, the best they can to create change. And I think a lot of it has to do with us as the community, really applying the pressure necessary for real change to happen. And I say that because, you know, it, it's very obvious, it's been obvious for years that, you know, there's needed to be a change in police. Not just police reform, but you know, community relations. But I don't think we ever really had a clear plan on what we wanted. And I think that may really be the difference of what we witnessed over the last five, six months is, you know, people not just complaining about the police and police brutality and community interactions, but where we're coming with a clear agenda as far as what we want to see changed. And I feel like that's really the difference. I think, with the rise of social media, our collective ability to have conversations not only within the city, but across the nation as a whole. It's allowed us to share ideas. As far as you know, these are the things that we're tired of, and these are the things we want to create change with. And this is what we want change to look like. And I feel like in Schenectady because, you know, in a, in a microcosm, it's really very small. But what we've been able to do is because it's smaller, we've been able to target in and hone in on exactly what we want.
Lucas Willard: 
Your suggestion that leaders have been really receptive of is creating the citizen advisory panel that will actually have some say, to prospective hires. For the police department, do you think that you know, if we want to sort of reform police forces that it needs to start at the very start?
William Rivas: 
Yes. And I think that's important, because from the community standpoint, we've been socially conditioned to respond to issues and to not take precautionary measures, meaning like, after a police officer commits an act of police brutality, it's already too late, in essence, because the person is already committed the action. And then we're responding to what we're seeing. With this tactic, with this strategy that I've implemented, we're actually able to sit down and have these conversations ahead of time. And it's really it's based on three premises, the community's expectations, what we expect when you're coming into our community, what is the police officers expectations, when they're they're coming into our community, as an individual who wants to come in and work into a community? What have you heard? What do you think? What do you heard about the people? What have you heard about the communities? The level of engagement where you grew up at? What was your engagement with police officers? How did you see policing in the community? Did you have access to communities like this? And level three is the experience, you know, in growing up where you grew up? What was your experience in the community? What was your community like? Because then we're having a much more tangible conversation as far as you're coming into our community. This is what you think this is what you've learned, based on where you grew up. But this is what we're telling you is so much different about our community, it becomes much different when you have somebody come to a city likes connect your Albany, and they're coming into the community. And based off the media, all they're seeing is gangs and shootings and drugs. And then they're taking that and they're formulating their perspective on a community of people prior to even engaging with them. And what what I, you know, what we've been able to do is say, Hey, wait a second, I know what you heard. But before you go in here and just start acting off a pre conceived notion, let me tell you about some of the things that are really going on. Let's talk about the fact that for generations, fathers have been snatched out into communities and these kids are raising themselves. Let's talk about the fact that our educational system has failed to educate our youth to the standards of, of youth and other communities. Let's talk about some of these things. Because when you come in contact with an individual, now you understand the person and you're not looking at the problem. You're not treating. Okay, this guy's wearing a red shirt. He's a gang member gang members are bad. I'm gonna react to him in a violent manner. No, now you're taking into consideration. Let me talk to this individual, because maybe there's something there that I might not be aware of.
Lucas Willard:  
Schenectady has an overwhelmingly white police force. Do you think improving the hiring process would also encourage minority, all kinds of people to potentially become law enforcement and improve the pool of people who are applying to become a police officer.
William Rivas: 
Yes, that is the goal. You know, I believe if people believe there's a more fair process in Schenectady, that you will have more candidates come out. The same way if individuals are starting to understand that they have to go through this process to work in the city is conducting as a police officer. They'll think twice about how they operate when they come. So I definitely think down the road, this gives us a lot of legitimacy, bringing in more candidates of color from the community and even outside of the community as well.
Lucas Willard:  
On a related topic, there's going to be two vacancies on the city council soon. And there's a call, Councillor [Leesa] Perazzo told me that she wants to see a person of color in her stead when she leaves. What are your hopes for the City Council? And is this an opportunity now to move forward and get some more diversity on the mostly white Council.
William Rivas:  
I love Leesa Perazzo, as a friend, in you know, in the community for the work that she's done, and I wholeheartedly respect the stance that she took because it took a lot of courage to not only take that stance, but take it in such a place and which know our world is usually uncomfortable conversations like this. So for myself and the other individuals that have been mentioned as prospective candidates, I think this is really an amazing opportunity for people to come to the forefront and really create change
Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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