Bethlehem Police, With New Chief, Continues Reform And Reinvention Collaborative | WAMC

Bethlehem Police, With New Chief, Continues Reform And Reinvention Collaborative

Jan 15, 2021

As municipalities comply with Governor Andrew Cuomo's directive to reimagine local police policies, much of the attention has been on big city departments. But smaller forces have been taking a look at their own practices, too.

Like the other initiatives around the state, the Albany County Town of Bethlehem’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative faces an April deadline to report to the state. The collaboratives are tasked with fostering trust, fairness, and legitimacy within a given municipality.

Bethlehem, NY Town Supervisor David VanLuven
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Bethlehem Town Supervisor David VanLuven is a Democrat:

"The promotion of Chief Gina Cocchiara to police chief this summer was an important first step in the police reform and reinvention collaborative effort. Chief Cocchiara is the first, it's not only a law enforcement expert, but she's also the first female police chief in Bethlehem, the first openly gay police chief in Bethlehem, and only the eighth female police chief ever in the state of New York. So, she has an ambitious vision for the force in our town, and we're looking forward to great things from her."

VanLuven says Bethlehem's advisory committee has 19 community members. He says the experience involves "an intensive community effort that has spanned several months" in the town of about 35,000.

"We've had seven community, seven or eight community meetings so far, discussing specific topics relating to our police department, helping people get an understanding of what our police department is, who our police officers are, so that we can look at the need and opportunities for reform within our department in the context of what's actually happening in Bethlehem."

Cuomo's executive order spelled out the keys to the collaborative process: community input and participation, expert insight, and assessment of available data.

Collaboratives are expected to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color. Emily Marynczak is a citizen activist with Bethlehem Indivisible.

"Bethlehem, New York is a predominantly affluent white suburb of Albany and most of the predominantly white residents have had very little interaction with the police, other than an occasional warning about a taillight or a speeding ticket, or something like that. But as we've sort of dug into this work, we're learning that our sweet little town has quite a reputation amongst people of color in the greater Capital District as being a very problematic environment for people of color to drive through. And we did learn that we have a disproportionate number of tickets written for people of color. Far greater than the actual percentage of people of color who live in our town."

Several residents have weighed in with comments posted on the town website, including one from a Black resident who wrote he's "lived in Delmar for 8 years and never pulled over by police or arrested," and another from someone saying they "haven’t seen any data that shows our police force is racist."

Collaborative member Jaye Holly says her personal interactions with local police have been positive, and can't recall any specific cases involving alleged racism.

"Not that I'm aware of. And again, on the collaborative, we've really sort of tried to pull back and do a 10,000 foot view, right? So to look at not just a specific story, but what is the story that the data is telling us? And so trying to really look at the numbers, look at trends, look at, you know, are there areas where some practices that have been in place have had impact on communities of color that we that we really want to address? And, again, I think we're starting to see some areas that we could do better in and to begin to think about what do better looks like and how we would get there."

VanLuven says the governor has created "an incredibly tight timeline." The first round of the plan is now up for public comment.

Here's a link to join tonight's meeting of Bethlehem’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.