“A message was sent to everyone in this city, our city, one city working together moving forward that’s what we’re gonna do together,” said newly elected Mayor of Poughkeepsie, Republican Rob Rolison in a statement after the election. Rolison won 60 percent of the general vote against Democrat Randy Johnson with 36 percent of the vote. Rolison will be sworn in as mayor in early 2016 (Time Warner Cable News, “Rolison Elected Poughkeepsie Mayor,” 11.4.15).
Rolison, a retired detective in the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department, has targeted high crime rates as a central issue of his mayoral tenure with emphasis also on the economy. As Chairman of the Dutchess County Legislature, he established a plan to reduce crime by increasing police presence in “hot spot” areas, increasing police training to include mental health-related training and enforce city ordinances such as littering and driving laws (Rob Rolison for Mayor, “Fighting Crime on Day One”).
Vassar students expressed similar standpoints as Rolison in terms of need for reducing Poughkeepsie’s crime rate. Third year Vassar student and Poughkeepsie resident Muhannad Nesheiwat ’17 reflected on his own exposure to crime and its severity in Poughkeepsie, “[I went to school with a kid] who two months ago was shot in the head at point blank in plain sight over a drug-related issue.” He continued, “I know a lot of kids from my high school that tend to avoid [the metro-Poughkeepsie area]. It is not the cleanest area to go to, especially near the train station. You have a lot of homeless people that badger you whenever you walk past them, they harass you.”
Nesheiwat also thought that increasing the resources and numbers of the police force was important. He said, “Poughkeepsie needs more police enforcement, more police on patrol in the areas where crime rates are highest, maybe even some more undercover work to get more drugs off the streets, that will help with the crime rate… We need better programs in schools, more extra-curricular activities [and] other teacher programs that will help students stay interested in school and not get sidetracked by any of these drugs or gangs.”
Treasurer of the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union Pieter Block ’18 also agreed with Rolison’s immediate approach to dealing with crime. In an interview, he considered the logic behind Rolison’s increased policing plan, “If you stop someone from breaking a window, they won’t eventually commit a murder or a rape ten years down the line. The hope is that if you give someone a shock to the system very early [and establish] a negative association with committing a crime that people don’t get into serious incarceration which is where serious criminals emerge. It’s where juveniles become hardcore thugs.”
As the Hudson Valley Regional Council (HVRC) Chairman, Rolison identified resources that could be used during his mayoral tenure to reform the economy of the city. He said, “These problems will not be solved overnight, but we can begin to make the smart investments we need by exploring state and federal funding sources. Our work at HVRC can direct EDA and other job-creation funding here in order to make Poughkeepsie more competitive and improve the quality of life of its residents” (Rob Rolison for Mayor, “Rolison Highlights Federal Distressed Cities Grant Opportunities Available to Poughkeepsie”).
The incoming Republican mayor will likely have to make large-scale institutional changes to multiple systems to bring down crime rates. Poughkeepsie’s poverty is split clearly along geographical boundaries and racial boundaries. The Town of Poughkeepsie, where Vassar is located, is different from the City of Poughkeepsie. According to data from the United States Census Bureau, 24.9 percent of the City of Poughkeepsie’s population is under the poverty line compared with 10.8 percent for the Town of Poughkeepsie and 15.3 percent for the state of New York. The City of Poughkeepsie has a significantly larger concentration of minority groups, specifically Black and Latino communities than does the Town of Poughkeepsie with a large white population. These statistics show that Rolison will have to tread cautiously when issuing new policemen to these areas such that they have the training necessary to bridge racial and cultural differences (U.S. Census Bureau, Poughkeepsie City Census data, 10.14.15).
Not all members of Vassar College feel the same about Rolison’s policies regarding increased policing. Professor of History Rebecca Edwards feels that there are different issues that are more critical than high crime levels. She said in an emailed statement, “Crime is not, for me, anywhere near the top of the list of issues that need to be addressed in the area.” She continued, “Poughkeepsie has some of the same issues that many other urban locations deal with: inequality in housing and schools, lack of social services such as good-quality affordable daycare, an ‘underground’ economy that leaves undocumented workers marginalized and potentially exploited.”
Edwards specifically expressed her disappointment with the direction that Poughkeepsie is headed in dealing with criminals. “One of the issues there is the construction of a very large new jail. Other jurisdictions are turning away from the ‘prison-industrial complex’ as much as possible and seeking alternative treatment methods for drug addiction, for example. But Dutchess apparently hasn’t gotten there yet.”
Few Vassar students recognize the potential impacts of their opinions and votes. President for Off-Campus Activities of Democracy Matters Sam Beckenhauer ’18 attempted to raise awareness of votes in an emailed statement, “Students should care about local politics because they have the ability to affect election and consequently affect public policy. It is not uncommon for elections to come down to a single vote.” Beckenhauer continued, “Affecting the County races would have had ramifications on the building [of this jail].”
Rolison will enter the office amid high social tensions and with high expectations. Rolison will get the opportunity to respond to concerns about his stances on issues in an interview that will be released in the next issue.