Stories of antagonism between communities of color and law enforcement are ubiquitous in American society. News reports on police killing unarmed people of color are more than just a media trend; they are a window into people of colors’ distrust of police and vice versa.
However, cooperation between the community and the police works to the benefit of both parties. With this in mind, the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department recently partnered with Marist College’s Center for Social Justice Research on a project to improve relations between officers and the community they serve (Marist College, “Partnering with the Community through Real-World Research,” 10.18.2018).
With Marist’s help, the department developed an anonymous survey to gauge how residents feel about current community-police relations. The city mailed the survey—which includes between 30 and 35 questions—to 3,000 random households. By Oct. 12, 2018, participants were expected to have completed and mailed their surveys to Marist. Students and faculty from across the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences are currently evaluating the responses independent of the police department (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Poughkeepsie police aim to improve community relations through survey,” 08.20.2018).
City of Poughkeepsie Police Captain Richard Wilson explained that this approach to the process will help to ensure objectivity. “They’re in a better position to evaluate the results so that it can truly be a transparent reading of how we’re received,” he said.
According to Wilson, Marist will summarize the survey responses into an overall report to develop officer training that is responsive to the needs and desires of the community. This is at the heart of the department’s procedural justice goals: fair, objective and transparent policing of the Poughkeepsie community.
The City of Poughkeepsie is not the only New York community that has been grappling with issues of transparency. Across the state, many police departments either do not record or refuse to publicly report vital information about their policing practices. This includes a lack of record on the race, ethnicity, age and sex of people charged with violations and misdemeanors; the location of law enforcement activity; and arrest-related deaths. Violations and misdemeanors, such as riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or possessing an open container of alcohol, are the most frequent law enforcement charges (Communities United for Police Reform, “After Budget with No Criminal Justice Reforms, Advocates Call for New York to Lead Nation by Prioritizing Modernization of Police Data Reporting,” 05.04.2016).
According to Wilson, City of Poughkeepsie police do not collect demographic and location data during traffic stops or general questioning, but they do so when investigating a crime. He explained: “[If] someone committed a robbery, and we’ve received a limited description of the person and we ask someone who may fit that description, we do collect that data.”
Wilson emphasized that officers walk the street frequently, so they speak with locals thousands of times a year. “We want our officers to interact with the community,” he said. Wilson also indicated that Poughkeepsie police do not perform stop-and-frisk—a routine practice of New York City police.
When the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) embarked on a project to obtain documents and data on policing policies from various police departments, they met staunch resistance. The NYCLU filed Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to 23 New York police departments. In response, the departments ignored FOIL’s legal deadline, heavily redacted documents or cited deficient recordkeeping as reason for their inability to provide the requested information. In some cases, the NYCLU filed additional lawsuits in order to obtain documents (NYCLU, “To See How Police Police Themselves, We Went Behind the Badge,” 07.25.2018).
Wilson said that if someone were to FOIL request information about an investigation, then that information would be shared with only a few exceptions. “If there was sensitive information that was uncovered that may potentially compromise that investigation, it may not be released,” he explained.
Demographic and geographical location data in law enforcement activities can be relevant to policymakers and activists, as it provides concrete evidence of predatory policing practices toward communities of color. But in the City of Poughkeepsie, residents say some cops do not follow state or even national trends.
In fact, according to Emily Lee, 39, a business owner in the City of Poughkeepsie, cops already have enough on their plate. “There’s enough serious crime going on that they aren’t trying to just harass people,” she stated. “I feel like in the smaller towns they try to find more things to stop people for.”
Within the same vein, Meryen Elhor, 49, who moved from the City of Poughkeepsie to Arlington, said little to no crime occurs in the Town of Poughkeepsie, which is why police target people for smaller offenses there. She recounted several times when the Town of Poughkeepsie police pulled her over for minor infractions: her tinted car windows or lingering high beams. Notably, Elhor is of Moroccan descent. The officers did not immediately identify themselves or state why they stopped her. “Town of Poughkeepsie Police stop you for nothing,” she emphasized.
In his efforts to respond to the city’s needs, Wilson said all City of Poughkeepsie police officers will take training to confront their implicit biases. This is particularly necessary because Black residents comprise 37.6 percent of the population, according to 2018 U.S. census data (United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts, Poughkeepsie city, New York”).
In nearby Ulster County, John Jay College of Criminal Justice student Sahar Nasla said that the area has a reputation of corruption and racism. One of the Mid-Hudson Valley’s most notorious alleged police brutality incidents took place in Kingston, a city in Ulster. Kingston resident Fabian Marshall claimed he was punched and tased 21 times by police who mistakenly identified him as a suspect in a reported assault (Daily Freeman, “Kingston police board tosses case alleging police brutality,” 04.06.2018.)
In the same county, Nasla shared that Highland police wait at the end of a bridge where City of Poughkeepsie residents cross to enter town. She explained that Highland police do so to target Poughkeepsie residents who drive over at night to buy alcohol. Liquor stores close at a later time in the town of Lloyd than they do in Poughkeepsie. According to Nasla, once they do stop a Poughkeepsie resident, the Lloyd police make a deliberate effort to rack up many charges on a person, such as drug possession. She believes City of Poughkeepsie police are more lenient to such things.
“I’ve had friends who’ve been let off when they’ve been caught with weed,” Nasla said. “There’s bigger things to worry about than stopping people for weed.”