Common Council weighs bill on civilian oversight of police

The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor called the nation to action this summer. Demonstrators across the United States mobilized during a global pandemic in enormous numbers to protest the ongoing injustice of police violence. Poughkeepsie Common Council member Evan Menist said the protests awakened him to the reality of racial injustices he had been sheltered from as a white man. “We’ve seen throughout the entire country there are systemic problems with the criminal justice system and as a representative here in the city of Poughkeepsie, I understand that I have a duty to represent the people of the second Ward and to seek to reform” said Menist.

Menist took the grievances of his constituents seriously. At the Aug. 24 Common Council meeting, he co-introduced legislation that seeks to reform the lack of accountability in the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department (CPPD). The department has been involved in several high-profile cases of police misconduct in the past 20 years. The bill proposes the creation of a Poughkeepsie Civilian Review Board to investigate all policing complaints, conduct hearings, make findings and recommend further actions, with the power to receive and investigate findings, defined by an overview of what occurred and whether the reported behavior constituted misconduct, before recommending actions upon complaints made by the public against members of the police department. 

Menist is a fresh face on the Poughkeepsie Common Council. Elected in November 2019, he began the job this past January. During his bid for the Common Council, Menist spoke with members of the community who shared personal interactions with officers that contradicted Menist’s more placid view of the police at the time. Now he admits, “To deny that negative encounters happen is doing a disservice to the hard work that I think is done by the entire force.”

Many within and outside Poughkeepsie recall a local instance of police brutality that took place in March 2019, when CPPD officer John Williams was filmed throwing 12-year-old Julissa Dawkins to the ground after responding to reports of a fight among teenagers that was broken up upon their arrival. When Julissa’s sister, Jamelia Barnett, ran to her aid, she was thrown off by another officer with enough force to dislocate her shoulder. The CPPD charged the two sisters with resisting arrest, inciting a year-and-a-half long legal battle to get the charges dropped.

Williams was at the center of a case alleging civil rights violations 10 years earlier. In 2009, Jayvon Elting and Jarquez Dancy were 17 and 18 years old, respectively. On Oct. 2 at around 11 p.m., the two were walking down Main Street when officer Greg McGinley stopped them, believing they fit the profile of a man wanted for burglary. Officer Williams arrived at the scene later. After a dispute between the two teenagers and the McGinley, Elting was forced to the ground and punched by officers who had arrived at the scene minutes later, according to case documents.

While Elting was on the ground, Williams pushed Dancy against a police car. Dancy received a fracture that required his jaw to be wired shut for approximately six weeks. Their case wound through appeals processes until 2016, when the United State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dancy and Elting. The two officers were found to have made a false arrest and to have used excessive force. In the words of the court: “No reasonable officer would have arrested Elting in the circumstances presented.” Yet Williams remained on the force long enough to throw a pre-teen to the ground.

As it stands now, officer misconduct is handled by the City of Poughkeepsie police department. Menist believes it would make more sense to have external oversight. “Bias [occurs] during the investigation on the part of whichever officer or superior is conducting that investigation because the person they’re investigating is their coworker, is their friend, is someone that they’re working with on a daily basis,” he elaborated.

Poughkeepsie law would seemingly agree. Over half a century ago, a law passed creating a trial commission that would punish police officers for misconduct.The law calls for a trial commission to be formed by the mayor in cases of police misconduct. The law’s stated purpose  was to ensure public safety, as well as due process for police officers. Yet, teenagers like Dawkins, Barnett, Elting and Dancy are continuously forced to advocate for the protection of their own civil rights. Poughkeepsie mayor Rob Rolison never formed trial commissions in response to the cases raised by Barnett and Dawkins nor did his predecessor for Dancy and Elting. 

In June, Poughkeepsie resident and CEO of Equitable Future Inc., Brian Robinson, was contacted by Menist to draft legislation that would turn around the civilian complaint law. Robinson used the trial commission law as foundation for a civilian review board, which would process complaints against the CPPD and recommend charges to a trial commission.

The new Civilian Review Board would be composed of seven members: four to be selected by the Common Council, two to be appointed by the mayor, and one with law enforcement experience, appointed by the chief of police.

The addition of external oversight is especially needed to protect people of color, according to Robinson. “There is a clear history of policing the white community and the Black community differently,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s any coincidence that all the plaintiffs in these civil rights cases against the CPPD are people of color. There are no white people alleging that their civil rights have been violated.”

The legislation was introduced in the August 24 Common Council meeting. Both Robinson and Menist spoke on behalf of the bill. Several citizens were hopeful that the Civilian Review Board would get everyday residents more involved with the CPPD. “The Civilian Review Board would be a great first step in getting the people who do represent the community at large to have a say in communal police accountability,” said one attendee. “A CRB will get the citizens involved.” Earl Brown, also a member of ENJAN, also endorsed the Board, largely because he believes it would build trust between the community and police: “To me it’s all about transparency. Once you have transparency you can build trust. You can’t have trust if no one knows what’s going on.”

But to some citizens, the Board is tantamount to a police for the police force. “The council should not have any more strategies to micro-manage our police department,” said Queen City resident Pat Miller. “Let the department follow their documented protocols for discipline, suspension and termination.” 

For another Poughkeepsie resident, the police do enough to earn that trust. “The department is already involved with the community. So if unity is what you want with the police department, get involved and be a part of the solution.”

Last week, the Poughkeepsie chapter of the Police Benevolent Association issued a press release sternly against the legislation, and took no confidence in Council Chairperson At-Large, Sarah Salem, who supports the bill. The CCPD PBA argues that Salem’s previous DWI arrest makes them unfit to vote on legislation seeking to establish more oversight of the police department. The press release demands that Salem recuse themself. 

In a MidHudson News article last month, Detective and PBA Vice President Chris Libolt denounced the bill’s two supporters: “Salem and Councilmember Evan Menist have priorities that focus on defunding the police, passing the Right to Know Act and the formation of a Civilian Review Board.” He also insisted that the Board would cause crime to go up.  

Poughkeepsie Police Benevolent Association member Sean Fitzgerald complained that the Council was hypocritical in attempting to create another ethics board while not enforcing its own. “This council voted on an ethics committee and then has done nothing to make sure the ethics committee can oversee the council’s actions.” He continued, “It’s my understanding that people on the ethics committee have reached out trying to get a meeting, trying to gain some traction, and have met with no or little response from the council.”

Menist emphasized his support for the police, and complained that much of the criticism was due to misinformation or confusion on the part of its detractors. “I’ve never once pushed for defunding the police,” he said. “So far the City Council this year we’ve passed budget cuts across the board for every department in the city except for first responders, police and fire.” Some in Monday’s Zoom call were under the impression that the board would be both untrained and paid. Yet the bill specifically calls for all members to be trained and nowhere does it stipulate a salary for any of the two year terms.

Councilmember Chris Petsas gave his perspective on the bill Monday night. “Being a police officer during this time in our nation is a very difficult job and I don’t envy them. However, there are demands from a lot of people across the nation. These reforms are not anti-police.”

After discussion, the Council took a vote to hold a public hearing on the bill. Deliberations on the bill are far from over. 

(09/10/20): An earlier version of this article stated that the Civilian Review Board would have three mayoral appointments; Mayor Rob Rolison will appoint two to the Civilian Review Board. This version stated that board members would be paid; in reality, board members will not receive a salary. This version also stated that Councilmember Chris Petsas was a former police officer; Petsas has never served with the police force.

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