October 17, 2021

Building a better relationship

Community officer seeks change amid nationwide BLM protests

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cortland police Officer Jesse Abbott, left, talks with Melissa Kiser and her son, Bentley Kiser, on Friday outside Brix Pubaria in Cortland. As Cortland’s community-oriented policing officer, Abbott is working and speaking with residents to address concerns and make changes following protests of racism and police brutality.

No one more than a good cop hates a bad cop, said Cortland Community Oriented Policing Officer Jesse Abbott.

This is more so true now with the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in May after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, despite pleas that Floyd couldn’t breathe.

Nationwide protests of institutional racism and police brutality — many peaceful, but not all — followed.

“What happened out in Minneapolis was absolutely terrible,” Abbott said. “New York state does not train officers to conduct arrests in that manner for that sole purpose of injury or causing death to somebody.”

Abbott’s role is to interact and build relationships between the residents and the police department, he said.

This role has gained new prominence.

Abbott has been meeting with community groups and residents to discuss what needs to be addressed in the city’s police department to strengthen its relationship with residents.

On Friday, Abbott had lunch with Melissa Kiser, one of the organizers of Cortland’s Black Lives Matter group to discuss potential changes.

“A lot of what we’re going to be doing today is learning,” Kiser said before talking with him. “What I need. What he needs.”

Kiser said she would like to see more officers like Abbott interacting with people in the community. She’d also like to see a social worker be involved in dealing with a situation of rape in which the person might not feel comfortable reporting it to the police.

Abbott has suggested changes for the department as well, including:

  • Hiring more officers outside of Cortland to expand diversity.
  • Have mandatory inclusivity and implicit bias training for every new hire and refresher courses for others.
  • Have mental health counseling sessions for officers once a year or every few months.

“The work Abbott has done has been contagious to the department,” Police Chief F. Michael Catalano said. “The whole department has bought into it.”

Catalano said that the department has to continue to work with the public to maintain transparency. Additionally, he said Abbott could potentially help lead the way for new training methods and techniques.

Nearby Homer doesn’t have a dedicated officer to interact with the community like Cortland does, but tries to have all of its officers be connected with residents, Homer Police Chief Robert Pitman said.

“We do our best to strive to build a bond between the community we serve and our officers,” he said.

The department tries to put out bike patrols, when it can, to go through the village and tries to have a presence at big events like Magic on Main Street.

Bike patrols were also at the village’s June 6 Black Lives Matter march, which happened peacefully, Pitman said.

“We’re always striving to improve ourselves, to make Homer a great place to live and visit,” he said.

Through interactions like lunch with Kiser, Abbott said he hopes it can bring about change.

“We know that not everything is going to be accomplished right away but we have to keep the momentum going,” he said.