Police conducted 25 million traffic stops in 2011, making them one of the most common encounters between law enforcement and civilians. But even these seemingly routine interactions can escalate in minutes. Take the case of Breaion King, a Black Austin school teacher whom a white male officer slammed onto the ground of a fast-food restaurant parking lot. He had stopped the 26-year-old for speeding.
Not all traffic stops or other interactions with the police end in physical aggression, or worse, death. But given the stark power imbalance in these interactions, and law enforcements’ disparate racial profiling of Black and Brown people, asking for an officer’s name and the reason behind an encounter can prove too intimidating. Activists and civilians, however, have been arguing for years that people have the right to know the reason behind a stop, search or questioning—a demand addressed by the Right to Know Act.
This bill would require City of Poughkeepsie police officers to identify themselves, state the reason for a stop and provide a business card at the end of the encounter. The legislation’s goal is to improve community and police relations, and ultimately build trust. If the Common Council votes in the bill’s favor on July 13, the legislation heads to Mayor Rob Rolison’s desk. “I’m not going to veto it if it’s the collective decision of the Common Council that wants to implement it here in Poughkeepsie,” Rolison declared in the June 29 Common Council meeting dedicated to the bill and police reform.
If Rolision does approve the legislation, criminal justice activists close a nearly three-year advocacy campaign in the city. If not, the City of Poughkeepsie police department is content with its transparency. “I think we’ve moved as far as we could for transparency as far as I think is acceptable to the community. But ultimately the council will speak for the community,” Police Captain Richard Wilson shared during the same meeting. Advocates and residents do not share the sentiment. They voice that much more is needed to reform the police department—this is the bare minimum.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, debates about how to reform police departments and curb police brutality have emerged as an urgent nationwide conversation. Some of these demands—bolster police agencies’ transparency, amend use of force protocols and improve community-police relations—are not new, but they have assumed a new sense of immediacy.
Reforms that lawmakers previously dragged their feet to pass now fly through some state and municipality legislative bodies. In June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a package of police reforms, including the repeal of statute 50A in the state’s civil rights law. This once allowed police and fire departments to hide disciplinary and personnel records. Advocacy groups, namely Communities United for Police Reform, lobbied nearly eight years for the statute’s removal.
The Road to the Right to Know Act
New York Civil Liberties Union Hudson Chapter Director Shannon Wong and other members of End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) first shared the Right to Know Act with Poughkeepsie Police Chief Thomas Pape in 2017. Since then, she has not perceived outright opposition from the department or mayor, though they previously negotiated the bill’s path to law in Poughkeepsie. “I really do believe that the police department is interested in change,” she said. “I think they are interested in improving the relationships with community members.”
Amid Wong’s and ENJAN organizers’ meetings with Common Council members and the police department, plans emerged to transform the department according to a new policing strategy—procedural justice—a move away from the toxicity of maximum-force policing.
Procedural justice is based on the idea that people follow the law when they recognize authorities’ legitimacy to enforce it. Authorities earn legitimacy through gaining community trust, and treating the public fairly and with respect. The police department proposed completing its procedural justice initiatives—a community survey and officer training based on the results—before putting the Right to Know Act to a vote among the Common Council. Wong and other organizers agreed as a good faith gesture. “We really believed we had the vote to pass the bill, but I also believed that there would be real power in the police department making a big cultural change.”
In 2018, the police department and The Marist Center for Social Justice Research mailed out an anonymous survey on community-police relations and public safety. Of the 3,000 households the city randomly selected, they received responses from 389—roughly 1.3 percent of Poughkeepsie’s estimated 30,500 total population. Those responses now inform officer training and policing initiatives responsive to the needs and desires of the community. Officers also completed a survey in 2019 focused on procedural justice between upper command and lower rank officers in the police department.
The Marist Center for Social Justice Research released its report on the survey in July 2019. Wong believes it took the present national movement to push the bill forward a year later. But she also believes the bill is only a moment in a larger movement. “It’s just one step along in this process, one step that people have already been fighting for,” she said. “Some of the reforms we’ve been calling for aren’t enough, and now we’re going to need to think much bigger.”
“Defund the Police”
For some, that bigger picture entails divesting funds from the police department and investing in social services and community-based initiatives, encapsulated by the phrase “defund the police.” This national movement argues that pouring resources into addressing poverty, homelessess and mental health directly improves quality of life and deters crime. This limits society’s dependence on the police, whom governments often dispatch to respond to these issues. Coupled with the institutional racism some say is inherent to policing in America, the status quo produces disproportionate rates of incarceration for people of color, low-income people and those living with homelessness and mental health issues.
Pougkeepsie adopted a $14,860,254 budget for the police department—27.77 percent of the city’s total $52,233,673 budget. In May, every city department cut 15 percent from their respective budgets to account for the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial impact. The city exempted the police and fire departments, as well as federally funded section 8 organizations, from these cuts. “Public safety is the first priority of government,” Rolison shared in an emailed statement.
Rolison said prior to the June 29 meeting that he is not considering re-allocating funds from the police department at this time. As the city’s budget shortfalls develop, they will make budget adjustments as needed across the board.
During the June 29 Common Council meeting, Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley organizer Rae Leiner proposed shifting 15 to 20 percent of the department’s budget into community initiatives such as youth programs, parks and recreation and mental health services.
The police department’s BEAT patrol program partners police officers, health professionals and other social workers when responding to homelessness, substance abuse and mental health crises—dubbed “emotionally disturbed persons” (EDP) cases by law enforcement. The patrols are limited to a few hours a week, so officers respond to the majority of these cases without health professionals or social workers. Wilson did not respond to an inquiry about how many EDP cases the patrol intervened in last year, or how many the department responded to in total. Currently, 75 percent of Poughkeepsie officers have crisis intervention training.
“Having training for police officers is important for them to know how to de-escalate and work with folks who are neurodivergent, and that’s also a first step, but really they shouldn’t be handling these kinds of interactions,” Leiner explained. They alluded that police sometimes respond inappropriately to neurodivergence.
Diversifying the Department
There remains a disconnect between a city with a large Black and Brown population and a majority white police department that some residents believe procedural justice cannot solve. Black residents comprise 37.6 percent of the population, while the department—91 officers total—hired 2 new Black officers between 2016 and 2020. Some applaud implicit bias training Poughkeepsie officers undergo, with some pressing that this should be anti-racism training. But others also stress that a police department reflective of the community it serves engenders more trust and understanding.
In 2014, Dutchess switched its prerequisite to take the police civil service exam from a high school diploma to 60 college credits or some military or police experience. Despite recruitment efforts since 2016 at Poughkeepsie City schools, Dutchess Community College and Marist College career fairs, the department still struggles with its minority hiring. Dutchess legislator Randy Johnson believes that the county should further alter the police civil service exam requirements: “I honestly believe that you don’t need a college degree to be a police officer.”
Policing the Police
The city made headlines across the Hudson Valley in 2019 after what many perceived as excessive use of force in the arrest of two Black teenage girls, Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins. The girls were present but not involved at a fight near Poughkeepsie Middle School when officer Kevin Van Wagner arrested Dawkins. Wagner threw her to the ground during her arrest, alleging she resisted arrest. When Barnett ran to her sister’s aid, officer John Williams threw her to the ground and knocked her unconscious. The city concluded that Williams did not use excessive force following an over 200-hour long investigation, citing that Barnett and others shoved Wagner from behind.
Poughkeepsie and other Mid-Hudson area residents reference the encounter, among other incidents, as reasons for a civilian review board. Across the river, Newburgh’s Police Community Relations and Review Board can review investigations of police conduct complaints from the police chief, and recommend next steps such as mediation, but it does not investigate complaints itself. In New York City, the Civilian Complaint Review Board can investigate complaints and recommend disciplinary action against officers to the NYPD police commissioner.
Wilson noted that residents have pushed for a Poughkeepsie civilian review board in past years, but expressed that he does not see a need for one in Poughkeepsie. “We have about 10 civilian complaints a year. It’s less than one point zero one percent of our interactions with people,” he said. “So, I don’t really see a discipline issue here that we need to combat from a different angle.” According to Wilson, the majority of last year’s complaints allege rudeness or discourtesy during traffic stops.
Some residents are skeptical that these complaints are the extent of the community’s issues with officers’ policing. During the June 29 meeting, attendees shared encounters with officers that left them shaken or afraid for their safety. One resident recounted in which she believes she was racially profiled. An officer who pulled her over after deeming her last-minute decision to change her turn signal as suspicious. In another incident, an officer trailed her car for several blocks before she parked a few doors down from her house. She claims the officer then approached her with their gun drawn at her.
Another attendee moved to a neighboring Mid-Hudson city after an officer allegedly threw them out of the city police station after they attempted to report their assault at the hands of an unidentified group.
The police complaint form and process has been difficult to navigate in past years, which some residents blamed for the department’s low complaint count. The department updated the form, which is accessible online, back in April 2019. But even the complaint process itself can be intimidating for residents who fear police retaliation. Leiner shared that Poughkeepsie residents have reported police misconduct to Blackline, a national hotline for Black people to report negative encounters with police and racist vigilantism, instead of filing complaints with the department in the last 18 months.
Former member of the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board and Poughkeepsie Councilmember Sarah Brannen consigned the need for a separate body that reviews police complaints. “The time has come and gone for the police department to be handling these complaints itself. A lot of other communities have separate entities that will receive and review these complaints,” she said.
Even further, some residents believe the civilian review board should have disciplinary power. “Unless those review boards have substantive power, then they’re mostly for show. You wanna show you’re doing the right thing, but there’s no accountability there,” Leiner said.
As residents await the Common Council and Mayor’s vote on the Right to Know Act, it is clear that this impending win or loss for police accountability and transparency does not mean the end of reform in the city. “It is a small step when we need transformational change,” said Wong.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the prerequisite to take the police civil service exam. It requires a high school diploma, not a college diploma.