Poughkeepsie residents express approval, note room for improvement in police reform draft

The City of Poughkeepsie’s second police reform public Meeting was hosted by Mayor Rob Rolison, Director of Community Engagement John Penney (bottom, left to right), Captain Richard Wilson, Police Chief Tom Pape and Common Council member Yvonne Flowers (top, left to right). Tiana Headley/The Miscellany News.

City of Poughkeepsie residents offered both minor tweaks and major criticisms of the city’s draft response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 at a Wednesday public forum. The order mandates policing modernization plans from police agencies state-wide.

Many commended the work of the city and the police department, but most participants cautioned that the draft is far from a perfect response to the governor’s historic mandate to address institutional racism and modernize policing practices.

“Mastering cosmetic compliance is nothing to be proud of,” said Brian Robinson, a member of the Poughkeepsie-based criminal justice advocacy group End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN). He continued, “Really it’s nothing more than duping average people into believing you’re doing a passable job.”

Attendees offered policy prescriptions that ranged from improving the use of force regulations and forming a non-police-affiliated substance overdose intervention team, to tracking policy efficacy and updating the civilian complaint process.

But despite these missing measures, some Poughkeepsie residents were impressed with the first draft.

“I really like the vast majority of what’s there,” said Poughkeepsie resident Jeff Aman. “I think it’s moving in the right direction.”

City administration and police department officials drafted the 29-page response based on recommendations from the Procedural Justice Committee, a body formed in 2019 to strengthen community-police relations. Last August Mayor Rob Rolison tasked the committee—made up of Poughkeepsie police officers, other city officials and community members—with reviewing the governor’s order, garnering public input and debating possible reforms.

The City of Poughkeepsie Police Department and New York’s other roughly 500 police agencies have until April 1 to complete their reports based on community feedback or risk ineligibility for state funding.

New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) Hudson Valley Chapter Director Shannon Wong recommended that the city’s report include a policy that puts de-escalation as the police department’s first method of response, and that Poughkeepsie police assess their use of force throughout their encounters with the public. Wong said police should also be obligated to step in and stop excessive force and other abuse, even if the offending officer is a superior.

ENJAN member Laura Forman suggested that civilian complaints be anonymous, include more space for description and use accessible language for each complaint section. But ultimately, Forman says the advocacy group recommends all complaints be handled by a separate civilian review board. The Poughkeepsie Common Council introduced legislation for such a board in August.

While some offered specific policy changes, others critiqued the city’s purported commitment to transparency and community engagement throughout the reform drafting process.

“In my experience, the city’s deeds have not matched its words,” said ENJAN member Bill Rubin.

Rubin revealed his pending lawsuit against the city, alleging that officials denied his Freedom of Information Law request for police department records. He said these records were meant to inform community understanding of how to reform Poughkeepsie policing practices.

Local activist and Poughkeepsie resident Kris Tal said that earlier input, such as the first community input meeting, a youth focus group and a 2019 community survey with participation from roughly 1.3 percent of the city’s population was not enough for the city to work from.

The first October public hearing lasted roughly 43 minutes due to low attendance among those slated to speak. Many blamed this on the accessibility hurdles of hosting the October hearing on the video conferencing service GoToMeeting rather than Zoom, a more widely-used platform according to attendees. Those at Wednesday’s forum—which was also hosted on GoToMeeting—prefaced their comments with the same accessibility concerns.

In between these forums, officials are also collecting written feedback from the community through an online form on the city’s Executive Order 203 page.

Residents have until February 16 at 5 p.m. to share their comments. The feedback will inform further changes to the report, which must gain the Common Council’s approval.

“We appreciate all the feedback we have received to date,” said Mayor Rolison in a public statement. “We look forward to finalizing this report and to forwarding [sic] to the Common Council for its consideration, and to do so in a timely manner.”

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