A task force in Westchester County has issued its draft police reform report and recommendations. A few of the task force members are discussing some of the recommendations in the 179-page report.
Shortly before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued executive order 203, which tasked communities with putting together a Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan by April 1st, Democratic Westchester County Executive George Latimer convened a task force to implement police reform following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody last May. Once Cuomo issued his order, Latimer aligned his plans with the governor’s mandate.
“We owe it to George Floyd, and we owe it to that moment in that night in May when a tragedy happened, and we didn’t turn our back from the tragedy, we turned to work to deal with that tragedy,” Latimer says.
Democrat Ben Boykin is chair of the county Board of Legislators.
“And we all remember seeing on Memorial Day last year the murder of George Floyd played out in front of us. And let me take one moment of personal privilege,” Boykin says. “We see it on TV, but it hit home to me personally two weeks later when I discovered that my high school math teacher, who is still living, is George Floyd’s uncle. And I’ve fully prepared a memorial resolution for him. He’s still living, will soon be 92.”
Boykin says he and county legislators will take a deep dive into the report and assess what local laws need to be passed or amended, and hear from constituents and task force members. Attorney and police reform task force co-chair Leroy Frazer says the Public Safety Commissioner agreed to expand training.
“They agree that they would expand the training in certain specific areas such as cultural competency and implicit bias,” says Frazer. “These represent efforts in which our goals can be reached for total trust between the community and the police.”
The report’s 51 recommendations originated from six working groups within the county’s 38-member Police Reform and Reimagining Task Force. Attorney and task force co-chair Mayo Bartlett:
“As the working groups came up with recommendations, quite often the Westchester County Department of Public Safety would take those recommendations and already work to implement them before they were even voted on if they thought it was good idea,” says Bartlett.
One of the recommendations is to pass county laws to create the Office for Police Accountability (OPA) to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Bartlett talks about another.
“I think that one of the things that was very enlightening for us was the realization that throughout New York state, only 25 percent of the police departments are actually accredited, and in Westchester County, only 50 percent,” says Bartlett. “So the recommendation for statewide legislation that would require accreditation of all police departments is essential.”
He says another recommendation is to implement Project ABLE (Active ‘Bystandership’ for Law Enforcement), which emerged from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in response to alleged police atrocities against mainly Black and Brown people trying to flee flooding.
“And in my estimation, it can be transformative because what it does is it, it addresses conduct; it requires bystandership so that people cannot simply stand by and allow what happened to George Floyd to happen; and it focuses on officer wellness and, as a consequence, community wellness,” Bartlett says. “So if an officer is put into the position of making sure that they are held accountable and that their well-being is being considered by their fellow officers, then we quite often don’t have incidents that we have to later try to undo.”
Blanca López is county assistant director of operations and staff liaison on the task force. She mentions a few of the report’s recommendations.
“We asked for the county’s Department of Public Safety homepage to be available to people who do not speak English as their preferred language; for the Department to have a clearer description of the role that they play in Mount Kisco and the Town of Cortlandt; for the Department to establish a stronger media presence,” Lopez says. “And also a very important topic that we discuss time and time again is how to respond to calls related to mentally ill. And we wanted to make sure that we looked at best practices throughout the country. We looked at the CAHOOTS program that was established in Oregon, and we have several recommendations addressing these particular types of calls that public safety must address.”
CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, is a mobile crisis-intervention program. Cortlandt and Mount Kisco are two municipalities that use the county police. Task force member and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Gleason says he received the draft report Monday and would review it.
“I believe here in Westchester County we have been proactive and ahead of the curve in many areas of our training, such as procedural justice, implicit bias, de-escalation, duty to intervene and crisis intervention, to name just a few,” says Gleason.
Gleason says his department can serve as an example for other departments when it comes to training, professionalism, policies and procedures.
“One think I did learn through the many hours of discussions and public forums throughout this process was that we in law enforcement need to a do a much better job of educating the public on what we do here in Westchester,” Gleason says.
Latimer says the report contains policy changes, executive orders and pieces of legislation. Plans must be submitted to the state by April 1 or municipalities risk losing state funding. Westchester’s plan is headed to the Board of Legislators. And there will be opportunity for public comment.