Altamont Police reform begins

— Enterprise file photo

Patrick Thomas, an Altamont resident and village police officer, is also a member of Altamont’s Police Reform Committee. The committee is due to have a meeting on Thursday, Feb. 18.

ALTAMONT — Many of the reform requirements Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered of municipal law-enforcement agencies have not been an issue for the small Altamont Police Department, said its chief, Todd Pucci, because a number the reforms are meant to address the racial disparities between the police and communities they serve, “and we really don’t have that [issue] in our village.”

In May of last year, George Floyd, a Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on a restrained Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. The death sparked nationwide protests, including many in New York State, and led Cuomo in June to issue an executive order requiring police departments across the state to reform and reinvent themselves.

The governor’s order requires all municipal police departments to “develop a plan that reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input.” Each reform plan must address policies, procedures, practices, and deployment, including, but not limited to, use of force. The plan must be adopted by April 1, for the department to be eligible for state funding.

“The protests taking place throughout the nation and in communities across New York in response to the murder of George Floyd illustrate the loss of community confidence in our local police agencies — a reality that has been fueled by our country’s history of police-involved deaths of black and brown people,” Cuomo said in June of last year.

Speaking about Chauvin, Pucci was unequivocal, “That officer should go to jail; what he did was murder.” There was no reason for a cop to kneel on a man’s neck who was already in handcuffs, he said. 

Pucci said that Altamont’s policy, and the policy of every department he’s ever worked in — he also worked full-time in Cohoes, but retired from that department in July of last year — is that once a person is in handcuffs, there is no need for force.

None of the actions surrounding Floyd’s arrest made sense to Pucci, he said, and he didn’t think you’d find an officer who would disagree that the actions were incorrect. They were “totally inappropriate actions by the officers that day,” he said.

 

Altamont Reform Committee 

Altamont’s police department has 10 part-time officers and one full-timer: Pucci. The department’s officers patrol the village, which has a population of about 1,800, for a majority of the day, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Before any plan is presented to the board of trustees for its approval, Pucci said, there will be a meeting where it is released to the public. So far, the department’s reforms, which have been somewhere “in the twenties,” the chief said, are in line with the recommended changes the governor requested. 

The Altamont Police Reform Committee members, according to Mayor Kerry Dineen, include:

— Pucci, Altamont’s chief of police;

— John Scally, a board trustee and the group’s facilitator; 

— Patrick Thomas, police officer and Altamont resident;

— Jason Johnston, a police officer;

— Deborah Hext, a village resident (she also chairs the planning board);

— George Schiller, an Altamont resident;

— Thomas Tubbs, a village resident; and

— Jean Conklin, business owner.

“Each member brings a unique perspective to the committee as they are a diverse group representing different areas of our Village,” Dineen said in an email

The reform committee did not advertise for members. 

Dineen told The Enterprise by email that “we had members reach out to us asking to be involved and [Trustee John Scally], [Pucci], and I reached out to others. 

In an earlier interview with The Enterprise, Scally said, “I didn’t choose the committee members, to be quite honest.”

Dineen did not respond to a request looking for clarification of Scally’s comment before press time. 

The public had not been notified of any of the committee’s meetings.

Bethlehem, for example, notifies its residents of upcoming committee meetings and streams them on the town website. 

The one recorded Altamont meeting had not been posted on the village website, nor had the public been notified about it. When The Enterprise called the village hall to inquire about the meeting, it was subsequently told the recording should be posted on the village website by Thursday, Feb. 18, which is also the date of another reform meeting. 

Dineen noted that there is a community survey on the village website seeking residents’ input on the Altamont Police Department; the survey is available until Feb. 19. “For the community survey, a NIXLE and website updates went out asking for community participation; that information was posted on our site,” the mayor wrote. 

Scally said committee work began in earnest about six to eight weeks ago.

Altamont may not have some of the issues other communities may have — for example, Scally said that he hadn’t even seen a gun fired since he was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), in the 1990s, contrasting that experience with a poll included in the police reform workbook that said 80 percent of respondents of a community that was polled had witnessed a shooting, had been shot themself, or had a family member shot.

Nevertheless, Scally said,  “I think this is our opportunity, in our little small community, to step up, to be proactive, and try to make the best community possible with our police department,” Scally said.

 

Pucci’s views

Pucci said that the Altamont Police Department is representative of the village. 

The department employs one Black officer, Thomas, which is 10 percent of the part-time force. Black residents, depending on the margin of error in the census count, make up between 1.4 and 2.6 of the overall village population.

Altamont has one female officer.

Much of the department’s work is traffic-related.

When protests broke out all over the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, there was a call to defund the police as some called for funding to go to social workers or mental-health experts.

Pucci’s issue with defunding,“What do you think is the first thing they are going to cut?” he said, answering: “They are going to cut training — the thing you need the most.”

On de-escalation training, Pucci said, “Right from the beginning now in the academies, we’re including more training there,” so before an officer ever takes to the streets, he or she has more de-escalation training than their predecessors.

But as far as in-service training, when the department does its defensive-tactics training, de-escalation “is definitely a much larger part of the training,” he said.

Pucci also noted that he and his officers, as well as most of the law-enforcement leaders in Albany County, attended an informative meeting with 100 Black men where de-escalation was a topic of conversation.

Altamont’s police department has a use-of-force policy, which was recently revised as part of the reform, Pucci said; it already had a no-chokeholds policy.

The job itself has changed: Being a police officer now means there’s a social-worker aspect to the job, Pucci said. 

One thing his department has always done with mental-health calls involves the county’s mobile crisis unit, he said, adding that there have been officers, the chief among them, who have attended the two-week training for dealing with calls related to mental-health issues.

There are a lot of resources in the county that people are not aware of, the chief said, which are used in Altamont, especially the mobile-crisis unit. He added there is also a specific mobile-crisis unit for juveniles, which Altamont has used.

Some things that are better off handled by people with specific expertise, Pucci said, since they have an in-depth knowledge that a typical police officer doesn’t receive in the normal course of training.

But there are instances when the department can’t use experts it would like to, for example, when a call comes in about an emotionally-disturbed person who is acting out, especially if that person has a weapon. 

“You can’t send somebody in there unarmed and expect them to talk them down and not get hurt,” Pucci said, which is where the mental-health professional and police work better as a team.

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