[Correction, April 7, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ahmaud Arbery was killed by police officers.]
In June almost one year ago, public pressure following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police compelled New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign Executive Order 203. The order mandated all New York police departments to conduct a review of their practices for systemic bias and draft plans for reforms by April 1, 2021, or lose state and even federal funding. On March 29, the Poughkeepsie Common Council responded to the order, voting to affirm the Police Reform and Modernization Collaborative. The plan was proposed by Police Chief Thomas Pape and Mayor Rolison, and its creation lasted months with input from the Common Council, the CPPD, community stakeholders, and the city’s Procedural Justice Committee. The plan is a catalogue of recommended commitments and changes to law enforcement in the city of Poughkeepsie.
Six years ago, Natasha Cherry, Council representative for the Sixth Ward, arrived to the Common Council with a goal in mind: “One of the things that was important to me, in regards to police reform, was the relationships in the Black community with the police department,” she said in a phone interview with the Miscellany News. Just after arriving in office she began to meet with Pape and Rolison to express her concerns. While they both committed to help, progress was slow. “The mayor was the most colorblind person I met ever,” said Cherry, letting out a laugh in the March 29th meeting, “when I used to tell him about some of the issues in the Black community…he couldn’t believe it.” Since then, internal collaboration towards reform has grown alongside public demand for change.
Earlier this year, local group Poughkeepsie Community Action Collaborative (PCAC) compiled a report of what it claimed was a record of overpolicing by the CPPD. Using court documents and the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer it found that out of the 1,490 arrests conducted annually by the CPPD between 2014 and 2019, only 821 average conformed to Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook standards. The PCAC also found that as the Poughkeepsie crime rate ticked down, the arrest rate did not. Using UCR figures, which were limited to Black and white demographics, the PCAC report found Black people were 53 percent more likely to be arrested for drug abuse violations, 42 percent more likely to be arrested for all other non-traffic violations and 55 percent more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct. Black people were also three times more likely to be arrested for maurijuana possession. Using further statistical analyses, PCAC claims that the pattern amounts to “hardcore discrimination.” The CPPD has claimed that it has no further demographic data on those figures. There is, however, an ongoing lawsuit against the city which PCAC believes will uncover that information.
To Brian Robinson, a member of End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) and PCAC, good faith collaboration from the police department throughout the process was dubious. “It’s like hiring a consultant to come into a company to improve your sales,” said Robinson, “They say, ‘Okay, let me see your sales figures,’ and the response is, ‘We’re not letting you see the sales figures. Well, then how are we supposed to improve your sales figures if we don’t know what they are?’” Police Chief Pape and Police Captain Wilson did not respond to requests for comment on the PCAC report or the reform collaborative.
Councilmember Yvonne Flowers, who represents the 5th ward, said the Procedural Justice Committee had already submitted their recommendations to the city and the CPPD by the time the PCAC report was published. She added that once the committee and the Common Council have a chance to vet the numbers, they will begin taking the report into consideration on future reforms.
Police reform has been an ongoing push in Poughkeepsie. Beginning in 2017, Poughkeepsie activists and organizations called for the Right to Know Act, which now compels officers to identify themselves upon interacting with the public, to state the reason for the encounter and provide their business card. That bill passed unanimously in July 2020, just a few weeks after Order 203.
That same year, activists supported the formation of a civilian review board (CRB). The legislation, sponsored by councilmember Evan Menist, would appoint an oversight structure separate from the CPPD’s own review process. The CRB would receive and review complaints brought against the police department among other roles yet to be determined. Supporters of the legislation said the civilian review board would create common-sense transparency between the City of Poughkeepsie Police and its majority Black and brown population.
A citywide 2019 poll administered by the city and Marist College found a considerable level of concern about police accountability among the community and city residents. A total of 389 surveys returned for a response rate of 10.24 percent. One question was: “How strongly do you agree that the police department holds officers accountable for wrong or inappropriate conduct in the community?” Just 42 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the department held officers accountable. Only 46 percent replied that they agreed or strongly agreed that the police are responsive to community concerns.
Despite some community members’ support, there was well-publicized opposition to the review board among civilians and the Poughkeepsie Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the city’s police union. Union members and opponents felt that it was an uncalled-for intrusion by non-police actors into the department’s own disciplinary process. A lengthy Facebook post from the PBA blasted local activists by calling them outsiders, and lambasts councilmembers Evan Menist, Sarah Salem and Sarah Brannen as “Carpetbaggers.”
Some sceptics of the CRB claimed that the extra oversight was hypocritical of the Common Council. They argued moving forward with the CRB while the council’s own oversight structure lay dormant was an example of expecting accountability for others while dismissing it for themselves. However, Ethics Committee chair Colleen Kinneary-McCabe explained that the holdup to the Poughkeepsie Ethics Committee was caused by protracted communications between the Common Council and Corporation Council, the city’s lawyer.
Since the controversy over the CRB bill has died down, the PBA has changed their tone. In a marathon Common Council meeting on March 1, Rolison, Pape and Captain Wilson presented the police reform plan to the Common Council. Weeks prior, when the plan was released for public input, the PBA Facebook posted, “The members of the City of Poughkeepsie PBA are proud to be at the forefront of progressive policing. We are proud of our accomplishments and will continue to improve the way we serve our community.” Moving forward, collaboration between the mayor, the council and the union will be imperative, as it will take legislative action to bring some of the policy plans to fruition.
The Police Revitalization and Reform Plan calls for a civilian review board ostensibly similar to the one outlined in the legislation introduced by Menist back in September 2020. The proposal raises questions about the CRB’s authority, including its level of sovereignty from the police department, its ability to subpoena the police department and whether or not the body will have the power to discipline offending officers. The plan acknowledged Menist’s legislation, but stated that the city administration and police chief would “carefully weigh all the options, including ensuring such a board has qualified members who receive adequate training in the nuances of this highly important function.” Their plan calls for “two City of Poughkeepsie PBA members; two members of the Police Command Staff; two members of the Common Council; two members of the community,” to form a working committee that will shape the structure and sovereignty of a future review board. Menist’s original legislation called for all board members to be filled by non-police officers.
Commitments in the plan extend to the city’s education system. In police reform thought, the “school to prison pipeline” is a well known phenomena. It refers to the carceral nature of discipline in school as well as the economic and societal mechanisms that disproportionately accelerate low income and BIPOC communities into the justice system. The Poughkeepsie School Disctrict’s only high school, PHS, is nearly 90 percent Black and Hispanic, 64 percent economically disadvantaged and has a 60 percent graduation rate, compared to Dutchess County’s average graduation rate of 88 percent.
The collaborative calls out that trend with an eye towards creating diversity in the CPPD ranks. The department intends to form a “pathway to policing” with the Poughkeepsie school district and Dutchess Community Colleges, creating programs for high school students to earn an education in criminal justice and the opportunity to take a free civil service exam. The department already has a detective in place as a school resource officer which it says, “Forged positive relationships with students and staff as well as community stakeholders as well as coordination with available service agencies,” though police presence in school is commonly thought to be a symptom of the school to prison apparatus.
Though a step in the right direction, the plan is missing a critical “residency requirement” for CPPD officers according to councilmember Cherry, who expressed her displeasure with the missing reform. The Poughkeepsie native recalled that, when she was growing, there was a residency requirement and less of a diversity problem within the police: “interactions with the police were completely different…it was nothing for us to be at King Street Park playing kickball with police officers. It was nothing for us to be on Main Street and officers know you by name,” she recalled. Cherry said the residency requirement was negotiated away years ago.
One measure in the plan that Cherry supported was lifting the 60 college credit requirement for department candidates, although recruits will have five years to reach the 60 credit threshold once they graduate from the Police Academy, which counts as 30 credits for DCC or SUNY schools.
In a move towards transparency, the CPPD will also make its internally collected criminal justice statistics more public and commit to the New York State Police Statistics and Transparency Act. Signed in June 2020, the law requires any officer that discharges their weapon on or off duty where a person could be struck by a bullet from their weapon report to their supervisor within six hours and file a written report within 48 hours after discharging their weapon. The department will also commit to making its civilian complaint process more accessible as well as remodeling its website along with the rest of the city’s website.
Another goal of the collaborative is to renew the department’s work on de-escalation practices. Prior to the plan the CPPD instituted a 40-hour training program which teaches officers to recognize a mental health crisis, properly mitigate the situation and transport those in crisis “to the appropriate facility for treatment by experts.” The plan’s stated reform is to ensure that all members of the department receive the training. As it stands, 70 out of approximately 90 officers have done so.
Diversion from law enforcement is a tenant of a new LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program. The program, modeled after others in the state, will decentralize the carceral system in dealing with those with mental illnesses or developmental disorders. Though details of the program aren’t enumerated by the report, it will work in conjunction with the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a program launched in 2015 which redirects applicants towards resources better suited for treatment than the justice system.
Many of the stated policies in the plan are unspecified and often refer to already existing programs. Eight hours of instruction on implicit bias, what the reform plan defines as “the automatic association people now make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups,” already exists for department members, as does training on procedural justice, which the plan alludes to as well. In fact, six CCPD members already teach procedural justice across New York. Another example is the Right to Know Act, which passed in August and is listed among reforms.
Robinson voiced his skepticism of the reinvention plan over the phone: “It is still a failing of Executive Order 203 that it still allowed the police to decide whether or not they wanted to change themselves. They’ve wanted to change themselves. They’re an establishment…they don’t change easily.”
Despite the impersonal quality of a Zoom call, there was a contemplative weight to the vote on March 29th. Councilmember Cherry became emotional when she used her time to bring the revitalization into a personal scope. “I have an African-American son…there’s not much you can tell me about police reform. I had to raise him to do certain things that other parents did not have to raise their children to do.” Council Chair Sarah Salem noted that it was the first day of the trial of Derek Chauvin, whose alleged murder of George Floyd thousands of miles to the west in Minneapolis had indirectly resulted in the vote on EO203 that evening.