The City of Newburgh held a public hearing Monday night on 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. One of the related laws the city adopted over the summer faced a lot of backlash, and the city manager announced at the start of the hearing that the law was now tabled.
Newburgh City Manager Joe Donat made the announcement before calling the names of the 23 people who signed up for the virtual public hearing.
“Now I understand that there’s some concerns out there regarding the information that is being requested of the community when they interact with the police,” Donat says. “So what we have done is we have pressed the pause button here.”
He says the pause began Monday morning, and there will be a new form that could contain the name of the officer and date and time of the incident.
“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 and we, myself, Chief Amthor and I know the city council will work collaboratively among ourselves and certainly welcome any suggestions or insight from the community as to how to move forward.”
Shannon Wong is chapter director for the New York Civil Liberties Union in the Hudson Valley.
“I was here to share concerns about the colleting of personally identifiable data on the field activities sheet, and I am very pleased to hear that you are pausing on the collection of this data,” Wong says.
Wong says she listened to a recent work session of the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan, called executive order 203, which included the city’s police chief.
“And I understood that the chief said that the community wants to know who’s stopped, where they’re stopped and why they are stopped,” says Wong. “I believe the community is looking for demographic data, not information on specific individuals. That is reasonable information to want, but the method of achieving that through the field activities sheet is really not okay, and is seems that you’ve come to that understanding also.”
She says the local law does not contain information about collecting data from residents. It does, however, say that officers would have pre-printed business cards with their name and contact number. Shakirah Williams spoke at the hearing.
“The police are here to protect and serve me. How could you protect and serve me if I don’t even know who you are? Like how could you not give me the right to know who you are? Williams says. “I would like to know who I have an encounter with, whether it’s good or bad.”
Newburgh City Councilmember Ramona Monteverde:
“This got so messed up because of miscommunication, and we’re trying to do so much. I don’t know how this even happened,” Monteverde says. “But I’m happy, I was happy tonight from the public and I’m, want to make sure that they are clear that we are not going to collect the data. It never should have happened that way. That, again, was a big mess-up.”
Also, the NYCLU’s Wong is concerned that there is a database holding collected information before the law was paused. City resident Aura Lopez Zarate shares this concern.
“The database that was mentioned, has it been used? asks Lopez Zarate. "And, if it has been used, how can that be destroyed or how can we get rid of it because it is a concern that City of Newburgh residents and other folks that their information is being collected and they have not done anything wrong.”
City Councilmember Karen Mejia says collecting information was not the intent of the Right to Know law.
“I would just say it was supposed to be a very simple legislation. 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.”
Newburgh resident Eleanor Sciannello also was glad to hear the data collection portion of the Right to Know Act was tabled. And she has a suggestion that stemmed from the storming of the U.S. Capitol in early January.
“I think in light of what happened at the Capitol on January 6, I personally would love to see a social media review of all of the officers who work in the City of Newburgh, any, any government official, government-employed person, for that matter, to check for involvement in white supremacist terrorist organizations and/or the, for involvement in what happened at the Capitol,” Sciannello says.
Other speakers agreed with implementing a social media policy. Bishop Jeffrey Woody, who is one of Newburgh’s police reform committee members, says the police department will remain committed to the hiring of minority officers.
“In 2021 and beyond, members of the community will be encouraged to participate in the hiring process of all new police officers,” says Bishop Woody.
He says the police reform plan calls for giving subpoena power to the Police Community Relations and Review Board, or PCRRB, for which several people at the hearing voiced support, including Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey.
“We do have to work through with the legal department how to provide or facilitate that subpoena power,” Harvey says. “I think that’s an important recommendation.”
Another part of the plan that Bishop Woody mentioned also drew support.
“Hope Not Handcuffs,” Bishop Woody says. “The police department will introduce this program within the City of Newburgh in an effort to provide alternatives to arrest when dealing with persons who suffer from substance abuse addiction.”
Localities must adopt a Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan by April 1, or risk losing state funding. Not all who signed up to speak showed up during the virtual public hearing.