October 25, 2021

The roots of reform

Law enforcement grapples with potential changes

Jamie Costa/staff reporter

Community policing Officer Jesse Abbott catches up with Chip Stockton on Friday at Bru 64 in Cortland. As part of its police reform project, Chief Paul Sandy wants city police to interact with the community more.

Since the first recorded import in 1619 of captured Black people by Portuguese slavers from what is now Angola to colonial Virginia, America has dealt with racism: the legal and systemic racism of slavery, Jim Crow laws and enforced segregation; and the institutional racism of centuries of ingrained attitudes.

The systemic racism is gone — at least from Cortland — said Cortland Police Chief Paul Sandy. No laws or policies treat people differently based on race.

But institutional racism? That’s a different question.

“I think sometimes people can mistreat people and not understand,” Sandy said. “Some things that may offend members of our society might not offend other members of our society, but I also think implicit bias exists in every person in our society.”

“Systemic racism is where you have rules and regulations and laws that treat different segments of society differently,” Sandy said. “Those don’t exist, there are no different rules.”

However, the May homicide of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, sparked nationwide protests and calls for abolishing police. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in June calling for municipalities across the state to propose police reforms to promote equality and eliminate racial inequities.

“At the end of the day, I have never been a fan of abolish the police, I’ve always been a fan of reform the police,” said Melissa Kiser, lead coordinator of the local Black Lives Matter movement, in discussing the Cortland community policy survey results.


But when it comes to the Black Lives Matter organization, Kiser believes in the mission but doesn’t adopt their values on a local level.

“A lot of what they’re trying to do doesn’t fall in line with what Cortland needs,” Kiser said. “Either you love the police and you never want to see them change and they can do absolutely no wrong or it’s abolish the police immediately, we need something new — I’ve always been to the left of that.”

Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank collects data to improve public policy, reports that racial and ethnic inequities that exist today are a result of institutionalized racism — the historic and contemporary practices and norms that maintain white superiority by making it difficult for minorities to get good education, jobs, housing, healthcare and equal treatment in the criminal justice system.

“Systemic racism is basically the roots of what we have been working against,” Kiser said. “Even if there are zero racists in the system, the system is built on improving the lives of the white body while simultaneously taking away rights and resources from the disenfranchised groups and minorities — it upholds white bodies first.”

Data collected through the National Institutes of Health showed that 52% of victims were white but of the 32% that were Black, the fatality rate was 2.8 times higher.

Eighty-three percent of victims reported they were armed, however, Black victims were more likely to be unarmed than white victims.

“Everyone is talking about police reform and defund the police and reimagining police departments and honestly police departments overall, but I feel like this department does a great job in what is not an easy job to do,” said Cortland Lt. Michael Strangeway.


Cortland and Homer conducted community surveys created in response to Cuomo’s executive order; 67% of Cortland survey respondents said they are satisfied with the city’s police department.

Kiser says otherwise.

“It sounds like that would be right on target with what would be expected in this particular population sample,” she said in reference to the survey results in February. “If you were to do the same sample from actual BIPOC people and have that sample be mostly BIPOC, it would be different.”

The results of the 407 surveyed showed that 3% were Black, about the same ratio of Black people the U.S. Census reports, 3.8%.

“It doesn’t necessarily represent the ongoing issues that people have in this community with the police,” Kiser said. “From people I have spoken to and wanted to be heard, it would not be the same reflection.”

Cortland, like Homer, had focus groups involving Black residents, in part to overcome the lack of statistical representation, said Mayor Brian Tobin. SUNY Cortland police and the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office also attended.


Kiser expressed concerns regarding how Black individuals are handled when they seek help, stating city police do not necessarily take Black voices seriously.

“I’ve witnessed them dealing with Cortland students, calling them racial slurs,” said Jeff Smith of Cortland. “I’ve seen them and I’ve heard of run-ins with them where people say they have had numerous slurs put against them.”

Smith said he wants to see more Black, indigenous and people of color in the department. When discussing police reform, Sandy said he wants to focus on community engagement through community-oriented policing.

“We have a very professional department here and I don’t see the problems that big cities have here,” Sandy said. “It doesn’t mean we cannot grow, it doesn’t mean there are not situations where maybe we have not been as sensitive as we could be but I think it’s a learning process for both society and the police department that there are certain things we have to do.”


Now-retired Chief F. Michael Catalano and Sandy developed plans for police reform before Catalano’s retirement March 19. Catalano wanted the department to implement more training and more transparency — and body cameras.

But the police department hadn’t heard any suggestions directly from the community outside of the public forum portion of the survey, Catalano said in February about community suggestions in addressing racism and bias.

“We absolutely did reach out to him,” Kiser said. “People did come out and say ‘hey, these are some concerns we have’ and the way they were treated really showed that it wasn’t a safe thing to do.”

Sandy said the only way EO203 will work is if the community and law enforcement can come together and embrace the change.

“What’s happened across the country is not what’s happening here,” he said.

“Unless there’s a significant change in the culture of policing of the warrior mindset, nothing
is going to change,” Kiser said. “The culture of policing, especially in the city of Cortland, is very oppressive.”

Kiser said someone tried to hit her with a car in January. When she approached the police department, she said she was told it was being handled internally as the accused was a member of law enforcement.

“It didn’t feel like I was being heard,” Kiser said. “It’s disappointing that Black people in general have to go through so many terrible things happening to them for police to take them seriously.”


But Kiser had a different view of the Homer Police Department, who she said local departments should be modeled after.

“We did a survey of the entire village and we have a pretty good understanding of how people view the police department,” said Mayor Darren “Hal” Mc- Cabe.

“The results were what I expected,” said Homer Police Chief Robert Pitman. “The majority of the people in the village really support the police department.”

McCabe led focus groups for police, non-profits, Black Lives Matter leaders and other people to come together and discuss their community concerns.

“We looked at the specifics of the directives and basically got feedback from people who were there about what the community wanted to see,” Kiser said. “How to have better engagement with the police, what does the community want to see, how does the community feel about the department in general, what are some immediate changes that need to be made and what changes are needed for the future.”

“They (Sheriff’s Office) dropped out of the EO203 collective and had all white men create their own project,” Kiser said. “I have no faith in them whatsoever.”

Sheriff Mark Helms said the department’s community survey results were overwhelmingly positive and no issues have been brought up by minority communities. But the police department focuses on the entire county, not just a single municipality, Helms said.

“The meetings were more broad than we were looking for,” Helms said. “We decided to stop going to the meetings that the mayor (McCabe) was having and started working on our own way so we could start concentrating on the county itself.”

When the survey results were published in March, Kiser said she had no concerns with the Homer police department and wished more police departments were modeled after Homer.

The Homer village board unanimously voted in favor of sending their report to the state this week.

“This was a long time in the making,” McCabe said. “We started (focus groups) in June.”

“Chief Pitman did a great job,” said board member Ed Finkbeiner. “I think our whole police force is on top of it and they’re doing the right thing.”