December 8, 2021

Law enforcement listens

Local police agencies gain insight into potential reforms

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms leaves the Cortland Public Safety Building in this Cortland Standard file photo from December 5,2020. Local law enforcement agencies have been listening to citizens’ concerns and questions to gain insight into potential policy and procedure reforms as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order 203.

On May 25, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died at the hands of Minneapolis police after being pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee on his neck.

His death, captured on video, led to protests against police brutality and racism, with many feeling there was an immediate need to change policing and police policies.

Following the demands for change, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed executive order 203 in June, requiring that all law enforcement agencies review their policies and come up with a plan for changes.

While the plans aren’t due until April, local agencies have been listening to residents’ concerns for what needs to be done.

Topics regarding diversity, body cameras and arrest demographics have all been brought up at recent public forums and could be implemented as future changes.

“We’re always looking at anything we need to do better,” said Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms.

Police reforms coming to the state will be in light of Cuomo’s executive order, said Mary Cannito-Coville, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at SUNY Cortland.

“Each local government entity which has a police agency operating with police officers must perform a comprehensive review of current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, and develop a plan to improve such deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, for the purposes of addressing the particular needs of the communities served by such police agency and promote community engagement to foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color,” according to the governor’s website.

This executive order was signed following the death of Floyd and the protests that followed his death and the deaths of other people of color by police, Cannito-Coville said.

For law enforcement policies to be changed, offices will first be required to have public hearing sessions where people can share their concerns, questions and what they would like to see changed. From there, the offices will need to review their policies and respondents’ concerns and have a report due by April to say what they’ve done and what they will do moving forward to fix any racial inequalities in policing.

THE PEOPLE’S CONCERNS

Local law enforcement agencies such as the Cortland Police Department and the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office are in the early stages of reforming with public information and hearing sessions.

The Cortland Police Department held the final of three public forums Thursday for people to ask questions and voice concerns.

Issues included use of body cameras, the need for more diversity and more police interactions with the public, to name a few.

Resident Melissa Kiser, a coordinator with Cortland’s Black Lives Matter group, recommended at the first public forum on Nov. 23 that all police officers wear body cameras.

“They understand that’s going to come with costs,” she said. “Everybody’s understanding that body cams aren’t 100% accurate or efficient, but they’re better than nothing and it’s all in the interest of having accountability.

Body cameras were brought up again during the second forum on Monday, with Police Chief F. Michael Catalano saying he supported their use but the cost of the cameras and operating expenses could make that harder to implement than expected.

“It went well,” Catalano said after the first meeting. “There were some interesting thoughts, good ideas.”

Similarly, the sheriff’s office held a virtual public information session Tuesday.

Officials talked about how the office functions, what services it provides and left room at the end for people to ask questions and have them answered.

Like the city police department forums, questions mainly focused on diversity in hiring and the use of body cameras, in addition to questions about implicit bias training.

Cortland County Legislator Beau Harbin (D-Cortland) asked about implicit bias training within the office, as 5.9% of the county are people of color but make up 18% of arrests.

Helms said he couldn’t confirm those statistics but said members from the office will be going through the training at the end of the month.

On Thursday, he said he was creating a report of arrests based on demographics in the hopes of providing better insight.

Harbin also asked Helms if he supports body cameras, which Helms said he did, but like Catalano, said securing funding would be the biggest challenge.

Cortland resident Danielle Wimbish asked if the office had considered looking outside of the county to bring in diverse, qualified officers, which she said has been done recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Helms responded that the office does recruit outside the county but the candidate would have to take the civil service exam from their county of residence. The office also tries to focus first on hiring people from within the county.

YOUR THOUGHTS

In addition to these virtual public forums, the sheriff’s office and the Cortland Police Department have worked with Cannito-Coville to develop surveys that were recently sent out randomly to 750 city and 750 county residents, Cannito-Coville said.

Questions and topics look at areas such as:
• Quality of life
• Perceived perception of police
• Experiences with police
• Racially inclusive language
• Ways to improve

“We really have developed a survey that will allow people from many different backgrounds to have their space to use their voice and not exclude people from this survey,” Cannito-Coville said.

She also credited the willingness of both Helms and Catalano for wanting to hear people’s concerns and see what needs to be changed.

“They want to have a deeper understanding,” she said. “They understand their interactions with the public may be limited so holding these forums, doing surveys to get input” can help with that.

A NEW POLICE?

For Catalano and Helms, it’s too early to say what reforms will be considered or put in place.

Catalano said he needs to hear all concerns and then determine what could be realistically implemented and brought before the city Common Council before he could say what changes may be needed.

Helms said the sheriff’s office will continue meeting with local groups for the next few months to get input for potential reforms.

Following the meeting, he said issues that may be seen in bigger cities, like Minneapolis, may not be as prevalent in places like Cortland, but he is looking to understand people’s concerns.

“With the executive order, it’s about each police department,” he said. “We’re all very different. So there are different thoughts on how people are going to go about it. My concern is my house. What do I need to do for the public here?”

As for any potential reforms, Cannito-Coville said she hopes they can help provide safer environments for both residents and police officers.

“I would hope it helps us to better understand what the issues are locally and leads to any necessary reform to make all people in the county and city feel safe, welcome and at home,” she said.

Staff reporter S.N. Briere contributed to this report.