GPD reform would have social workers, EMS answer some police calls

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Guilderland Police officers patrol Crossgates Mall.

GUILDERLAND — Social workers will respond to some calls that Guilderland Police used to handle if a draft for reform here is adopted and implemented.

Among the 18 recommendations and 34 action items in the draft for Guilderland Police reform are the recommendations that social workers and medics respond to calls involving mental health, despondency, substance abuse, and homelessness — and that certain cases be diverted from the criminal-justice system.

The draft also shows that a much higher percentage of Blacks are arrested in town than the 3.5 percent of the Guilderland population they make up. This is largely due to arrests of out-of-town suspects made at Crossgates Mall, according to Police Chief Daniel McNally.

The draft, posted on the town’s website earlier this month to encourage public response, will be considered by the town board in March.

The board will hold a public hearing on the plan — remotely as a video conference — on Tuesday, March 2, at 7 p.m. Residents may dial +1 929 205 6099, Meeting ID: 856 1244 5217, Passcode: 238323 to participate in a conference call.

A committee of 14 people appointed in August worked on the plan in four groups, studying: policies and training, response and diversion, criminal justice strategies, and racial justice and equity.

The final plan must be submitted to the governor’s office by April 1 in order for the police department to maintain its state funding.

Last May, after George Floyd, a Black man, died beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, nationwide protests, including many in New York State, led Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 12 to issue an executive order requiring police departments across the state to reform and reinvent themselves.

Guilderland’s draft was presented in an online video conference on Feb. 11. The 19-page draft also has a lengthy survey on the police, which residents are encouraged to fill out. As of Feb. 11, there had been 369 survey responses, yet to be analyzed.

The draft reports that Guilderland Police received 228 calls in 2018 and 231 calls in 2019 that would have been answered by a social worker, according to the recommendation.

The draft calls for “the formation of a joint intervention/emergency response team to be comprised of EMS/Police/Mobile Crisis.”

“We realized mental health, drug addiction, alcoholism, homelssness — that is a big issue,” said Patricia Slavick, a Guilderland Town Board member who served on the committee.

“One thing we are blessed with in our town,” said Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber during the Feb. 11 session, is a “close relationship” between police and emergency medical services.”

Chief McNally started at Guilderland 33 years ago as a police paramedic and, he said, “worked my way up through the ranks.”

“What’s really important is trying to work on this mental-health component that remains out there and really needs a lot of work,” McNally said. “And the police department is not the only part … It needs to be community involvement, social workers coming together so that we can eliminate a situation prior to it becoming a crisis situation.”

After a call related to a mental-health issue is made, the draft says, “Should there be no concern for scene safety, a police officer will respond, as well, but will stay away from the scene. Should the patient or a bystander become unruly or the scene become unsafe for the paramedic or EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), a police officer can respond in.

“If the Mobile Crisis team is unable to respond, EMS will connect to a therapist or counselor via an iPad to UCM (United Concierge Medical).”

This recommendation comes with a caveat that funding is needed.

“Everybody is pretty excited about being able to help more people in more ways than we initially could,” said Harjub Singh, a Guilderland paramedic who served on the reform committee. He said that EMS has evolved to be more dynamic with training that includes mental-health topics.

The draft also recommends using programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, known as LEAD, once it becomes available to Albany County municipalities and funding is obtained.

“In lieu of the normal criminal justice system cycle — booking, detention, prosecution, conviction, incarceration — individuals are referred into a trauma-informed intensive case-management program where an individual receives a wide range of support services, often including transitional and permanent housing and-or drug treatment,” the draft says.

“Diversion remains a huge topic,” said McNally.  “We need to get some of these cases out of the criminal justice system.”

Committee member Robert Fleury spoke, a retired assistant attorney general, of the importance of support, noting these recommendations “don’t stand on their own.”

He said legislators would need to be convinced of the need for funding for training and more capacity for the police department and that the court system would need to assist with divergence programs.

“Without those things, we haven’t finished our job,” Fleury said.

 

Justice 

The draft recommends that the Guilderland Police Department review and revise its mission statement and goals “to include the concept of procedural justice … the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources.”

The draft goes on, “Procedural justice speaks to four principles, often referred to as the four pillars. These are fairness in the processes, transparency in actions, opportunities for voice, and impartiality in decision making.”

Action items include making it easy for civilians to file complaints, making “every attempt to eliminate provisions allowing for a disciplinary matter being removed from a personnel file,” and not hiring police officers from other jurisdictions that allow disciplinary matters to be removed from personnel files.

To promote racial justice and equity, the draft recommends recruiting a diverse workforce reflective of the community.

Guilderland, a suburban town with a population of about 35,000, is 87.76 percent white and 3.46 percent Black, according to the draft. According to the federal census, it is also about 7 percent Asian.

The Guilderland Police Department employs 39 officers; none of them are people of color. The department also includes three administrative office staff, 10 telecommunicators, and two animal-control officers.

“Based solely upon the Town’s demographic population of 3.5 percent black, the Police Department would meet racial metrics by having one black police officer,” the draft says. “But the Town’s goal is more than satisfying a statistic, and making the police force more diverse consistent with the community’s growing diversity.”

The Guilderland committee assembled arrest records according to race and found that a much higher percentage of Blacks than there are Black residents in Guilderland were charged. 

Of the 1,062 total arrests in Guilderland in 2017, fifty-two percent of the suspects were white and 35 percent were Black,

Of the 759 arrests in 2018, forty-six percent were white and 42 percent were of Black suspects.

In 2019, the Guilderland Police made 1,028 arrests of which 44 percent were of white suspects and 43 percent were Black.

In 2020, when Crossgates Mall was closed for several months because of the pandemic, Guilderland Police made 541 arrests of which 52 percent were white and 38 percent were Black suspects.

The numbers are skewed, McNally told The Enterprise, because of all the arrests at Crossgates Mall.

He had told The Enterprise earlier, in relation to needing more officers, that although Guilderland’s population is roughly 35,000, “Our population at night is well over 100,000 with the mall, SUNY Albany, and things going on in our town with the state workers, etc., etc.”

The committee also assembled data on Crossgates arrests alone.

In 2017, the mall accounted for 29 percent of the arrests in town, at 305, with 30 percent being white and 51 percent Black.

In 2018, Crossgates accounted for 38 percent of 288 arrests with 28 percent being white and 56 percent Black.

In 2019, fifty-three percent of 540 arrests in Guilderland were at Crossgates Mall with 33 percent of white suspects and 53 percent of Black suspects.

In 2020, again with the pandemic shutdown, 42 percent of 283 Crossgates arrests were of white suspects and 45 percent were of Black suspects.

McNally told The Enterprise that the committee then looked into ZIP codes of those arrested, finding “they were primarily not our residents.”

Asked if there could be prejudice on the part of police officers charging more Black than white people with crimes like shoplifting at Crossgates, McNally said, “The majority of arrests are not police-officer initiated.”

Rather, he said, the stores at the mall call on the police to make arrests when they suspect someone of shoplifting or causing disturbances.

“We have no idea of race,” said McNally.

As one of its action items under traffic enforcement, the draft says, “Consider reviewing the collected data on stops and tickets to better understand causes behind the disparity of tickets issued to people of color compared to the Town’s demographics.”

The draft also recommends creating a committee made up of department staff, town leaders, and town residents “to explore community policing and the practical application of its strategies in the Town.”

Further, the draft recommends that the town planner, zoning administrator, and town board liaisons “review building and lot development design, lighting, landscaping, and other measures consistent with the goal of reducing opportunities for crime.”

 

Overview

In an interview just before the Feb. 11 presentation, The Enterprise asked Barber about the timeline for implementing the committee’s recommendations once the draft is accepted.

Some of them, Barber said, could “start immediately.” Others, he said, required funding, for example, to add staff.

“We’re always looking at grants,” said McNally. “We’re realizing the police can’t do all of these topics alone.”

Both Barber and McNally stressed that the Guilderland Police Department,  — which began in 1972 with a chief, six officers, five dispatchers, and a secretary — was ahead of many departments in dealing with reform issues having been accredited since 2009 through the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, meeting the 109 standards set out by the state.

Barber noted that Guilderland Police had been using body and car cameras for several years and last year had updated its use-of-force policy. The draft calls for continued review of this policy as well as for annual training for conflict prevention and de-escalation techniques.

The department this year has a $4.6 million budget. Last year, it handled about 34,000 calls for services, made about 1,000 adult arrests and 48 juvenile arrests, and issued about 3,000 traffic tickets.

All of the committee members who spoke at the Feb. 11 session had good things to say about the “collaborative process” and “transparency” in their work.

“We were left with our own independence,” said Fleury.

“It felt like everyone’s voice was heard,” said Jaya Conners, an assistant professor of law at Albany Law School who directs the Family Violence Litigation clinic.

Conners also said, “Hearing from the community will really help us move forward in our goal … in a way that is meaningful to everyone in the community.”

Matthew Hanzalik, an investigator with the Guilderland Police who also serves as a domestic-violence advocate and as a liaison to mental-health experts, was on the committee.

He is pleased about a new program with the Albany County Department of Mental Health that gets people the help they need, avoiding “that confrontation out on the streets.”

“There really was a push to be creative and to look outside the box in terms of how do we do what we already do well, better,” said Christine Rodriquez, a committee member who works as the director of domestic violence services at Equinox.

She also said new thoughts would be welcome. “There’s no idea that’s a bad idea,” said Rodriquez.

“I have full confidence this will help the Guilderland Police Department be just and equitable within Guilderland,” said Matthew van Maastricht, the pastor at the Altamont Reformed Church who, in addition to theology, has an educational background in criminal justice and social work.

Salvatore Russo, an assistant public defender for Albany County who has defended individuals arrested by the Guilderland Police, called the committee’s work open and collaborative.

Ava Ayers, a law professor at Albany Law School who served as the moderator on Feb. 11, asked about how the committee’s work would be followed up. “After April 1st, where do these conversations continue?” she asked.

“We need to continue to push out community policing as a primary focus and with that we need involvement from our town leaders, from the police department, and from our community to work together to address the issues we have,” said McNally.

Barber said that, in a post-pandemic world, there will be more exchanges within the community. He also said he envisions a committee or panel will report back to the town board and mentioned that the Guilderland library director and the schools are interested.

“This action plan is not just gonna be stuck on a shelf,” said Barber.

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