Pro forma reform

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Matt Hanzalik of the Guilderland Police works with Altamont fifth-graders as part of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program. Hanzalik served on the police reform committee, which recommended re-evaluating the DARE and School Resource Officers programs to “determine if they are still effective.”

Two local reports on police reform show the value of collaborating with citizens.

The Guilderland Police Department had a committee of 14, including the police chief and town supervisor, whose members, since being appointed in August, met biweekly in four different groups, delving into various topics.

They ended up with a 19-page draft, outlining 18 recommendations and 34 action items to carry out those recommendations.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Office made presentations at two public sessions in October — one in Albany and the other in Clarksville — and produced a five-page report that was a near duplicate of the draft handed to citizens at the October meetings.

The reason for the reports is an executive order from the governor, which will end state financing for departments that do not submit one by April 1.

Time is short but we’re writing this editorial in the hopes of inspiring the sheriff’s office to yet include stakeholders in a meaningful way. Sheriff Craig Apple is a popular leader who has accomplished a lot of good in the last decade at the helm of a sprawling department. We like his priority of “humans taking care of humans.”

We believe including stakeholders in a meaningful way would exemplify that priority and make a good department better.

The executive order was issued in June in the wake of protests after the death of George Floyd. A Black man, Floyd died on May 25, 2020 as he lay handcuffed on his belly under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer with a record of conduct complaints. Widely circulated videos showed Floyd crying out “I can’t breathe” as he was suffocated.

The executive order — titled New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative — states that police agencies “must consult with stakeholders” to develop a plan “tailored to the specific needs of the community” to reduce racial disparities in policing.

The state issued guidance, “Developing Your Collaborative Plan,” that listed key stakeholders required by the executive order as well as others that should be engaged, such as residents who have had interactions with the police or been incarcerated, local police unions, local educators, LGBTQIA+ advocates, health-care professionals, business leaders, transportation officials, and mental-health and legal experts.

“Your process will not be successful if it simply restates the current functions, strategies and operations of the police department, without deep and probing consideration of the perspectives of those who seek reform,” the guidance says.

Both the town of Guilderland and the county of Albany have successful, well-regarded police departments. Both departments have been through a rigorous state accreditation process. Both are ahead of the curve with many tools — like using body and car cameras — and with many programs popular in the community.

Either could have rested on their laurels.

But Guilderland alone had the courage to use the energy and talents of constituents to undertake “the deep and probing consideration” called for.

From a slew of applicants, Guilderland chose a committee of hardworking, sincere people with varied viewpoints. From the beginning, Police Chief Daniel McNally was open about who was chosen and what their work would consist of. Their names are listed at the start of their draft report.

And many of them spoke proudly of their work, calling it “transparent” and “collaborative” when it was presented last week though a video-conference.

The draft from the sheriff’s office has no such list of names because there was no collaboration. Sheriff  Apple, in presenting his office’s draft to the county legislature’s Public Safety Committee on Feb. 25, said, “We really struggled a lot because, believe it or not, we couldn’t get that much input from the public. We tried and tried and tried.”

That does not ring true. The town of Guilderland is located in Albany County and had no trouble finding stakeholders to participate.

Albany County has nearly ten times as many residents as Guilderland — roughly 320,000 compared to about 35,000 — and the county’s residents are far more diverse.

Albany County is 72 percent white, 14 percent Black, 7 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent multi-racial, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Because the Guilderland committee members delved into finding and presenting facts, they were able to come up with solutions. Their draft, for example, states that Guilderland is 87.76 percent white and 3.46 percent Black. 

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

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 draft from the sheriff’s office does not include such data. We, as Albany County residents reading the draft, have no way of knowing how many officers we are employing or if they reflect the make-up of the community.

A problem has to be defined and understood before it can be resolved.

The Guilderland draft gives useful background on the history and financing of the department. County taxpayers are left in the dark on these matters in the sheriff’s draft.

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. 

The numbers are skewed, McNally told The Enterprise, because of all the arrests at Crossgates Mall. The committee also assembled data on Crossgates arrests alone. 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.”

Assembling information on arrests by race and by place of residence was worthwhile. It led to an action item that could, in the end, correct a disparity.

The draft from the sheriff’s office again has no such data, again meaning no definition of a problem, and therefore again leading to no possible solution.

The Guilderland committee also looked at the number of calls received by police that perhaps could be better handled in another way.

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 or medic, 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, is a “close relationship” between police and emergency medical services.”

 “It needs to be community involvement, social workers coming together so that we can eliminate a situation prior to it becoming a crisis situation,” said McNally, who was himself once a paramedic.

“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 sheriff’s office, too, has an EMS component but we saw no itemization in the draft of the number of calls that might better be diverted from deputies to medics or social workers.

The Guilderland recommendation, like many of those in its draft, comes with a caveat that funding is needed.

We believe this is honest. Spelling out the need and the solution is a way to inform the community and to build public trust because, one way or another, the public will be paying for the improvements as well as reaping the benefits.

And so we circle back to where we began: For reform to work, the public must be involved — from the ground up.

“Ninety-percent of this is already in place or we’re completing as I’m talking to you right this second,” Apple told the legislative committee members on Feb. 25 before they unanimously voted to accept his draft for reform.

Again, almost six months ago, on Oct. 6, nearly the same document was handed to the citizens who had volunteered, as stakeholders, to be part of a meaningful reform process.

One of the slides shown to participants then, addressing “What We Need From You” said: “Recognize that Albany County is entering into a groundbreaking collaboration to make real change happen.”

There was no collaboration and, without that, there won’t be real change.

More Editorials

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.