by Bill Batson
As opening arguments have begun this week in the trial of former Minneapolis Police Office Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, hundreds of residents of this county, many of whom protested his death in late May 2020, have been dedicating time and collective effort to end racial bias in policing in Rockland.
While Executive Order 203 from Governor Cuomo required municipalities to form policing collaboratives between stakeholder, in virtually every town and village the sessions were obligatory exercises, where public input was barely seen or heard. I was proud to sit on the steering committee of grassroots initiative, the Rockland People’s Panel on Policing (RPPP), where the experiences of people of color and victims of negative interactions with police shaped the agenda.
Over one hundred Rockland County residents formed RPPP and contributed thousands of hours over seven months, organizing three public hearings and producing a 66-page report. Entitled “End Racially Biased Policing, Improve Public Safety,” the report was formerly presented to the County Legislature and every police department in Rockland this month.
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Click here to read the full report.
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April 1st is the deadline imposed by EO203 for police departments to submit proposals to Albany on how to reinvent law enforcement in the post-Floyd era. Not surprisingly, most submissions barely satisfied the Governor’s order. Some were so thin, that if they were actually critically reviewed, they might trigger the suspension of funding promised to those who failed to comply.
We have no control over the verdict in Minneapolis, but if history is our guide, the lowest expectation for a conviction are in order. But here where we live, there are many working to achieve equitable law enforcement for all.
On behalf of my steering committee colleagues, Nelcy Garcia, Nikki Hines, Hon. Michael Lockett, Rev. Everett Newton, Sherry McGill and Fr. Owen C. Thompson, I hope you find our report a useful guide to a safer, equitable county, where public safety is a promise for all, not a pretext for social control and continued historic racial discrimination.
End Racially Biased Policing, Improve Public Safety calls for 11 immediate actions. Here is a synopsis of those demands. To read the full report, click here.
Ban the Stun Gun
Reuters reports that 94% of America’s police agencies use stun guns, and of the 1,081 cases where people have died after being shocked with electricity by police, at least 32% of the people were Black. The pain is said to be agonizing. As noted by Nyack’s Kenny Diaz who was tased by police in 2017
Axon Enterprise warns that tasers should not be used on people already in restraints. And yet, one year ago in Spring Valley, police tased Tina Davis while she was in handcuffs, according to an investigation by Attorney General Letitia James.
A stun gun is often referred to as a nonlethal weapon, but this is not always true, especially when people have preexisting conditions. Without prior knowledge of the medical condition of an individual, firing a stun gun is like playing a lethal game of chance.
It’s time to ban the stun gun
Withdraw police from schools
We’ve had School Resources Officers (SROs), since the 1950s, but the numbers have been climbing exponentially in response to the epidemic of school shootings beginning in the 1990s.
However, according to a report from the ACLU in 2018, there is no data indicating that police make students safer, and indeed there is increasing evidence showing they more often cause harm.
“When in schools, police do what they are trained to do—detain, handcuff, and arrest. This leads to greater student social isolation and a poorer school climate.”
As the Advancement Project states in a 2005 study on the school-to-prison pipeline, “No one is safe from zero tolerance—age, grade, past behavior, and disabilities are often irrelevant. And, although students of all races and genders are victims of this track, it is especially reserved for children of color—and males in particular.”
Black youth are five times more likely to be arrested in school than their white peers.
For this reason, we call upon the state and county to remove police officers from schools and instead hire more school counselors and other health professionals.
End Marijuana Arrests
With the inception of the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws, which required extremely high prison sentences for the possession and sale of even small amounts of controlled substances, the prison population has become increasingly composed of low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “The laws marked an unprecedented shift towards addressing drug use and abuse through the criminal justice system, instead of through the medical and public health systems.” Black and Latino people make up only 33% of New York State’s population, yet they comprise nearly 90% of those currently incarcerated for drug felonies.
This is one of the highest levels of racial disparities anywhere in the nation.
According to the ACLU, Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates. In 2019, New York State decriminalized Marijuana.
Given these facts, the RPPP is calling for an end to marijuana drug arrests and for individuals currently incarcerated for cannabis charges to have their records expunged.
End Law Enforcement Collaboration with ICE
Investigate the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department
On September 11, 2020, two Rockland County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Officers were indicted on over 100 counts of wrongdoing including “sexual mistreatment of female minority inmates” in our County Jail.
On July 25, 2019, Ferdy Jacinto-Martinez died in the hospital following an encounter with corrections officers in the Rockland County Correctional Facility. Though New York State Attorney General Letticia James did not press charges against the officers, the report did reveal serious issues regarding the officers involved and the Sheriff’s office itself.
According to James: “We engaged in a comprehensive review of the events surrounding Mr. Jacinto-Martinez’s death and concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to warrant or sustain criminal charges, “Nevertheless, we found that some of the actions of the responding officers were cause for grave concern.”
Sheriff Louis Falco III, the highest ranking uniformed law enforcement officer in our county, has himself engaged in well-documented public race-baiting.
Over a period of three days in June 2020, Sheriff Falco shared a series of news stories on his personal Facebook page that singularly depict Black people committing terrible crimes. The headlines and images he shared came from as long ago as 2013 and as far away as Georgia. Some of Sheriff Falco’s posts came from white supremacist and neo- Nazi sources, including one article taken from DailyArchive.org, a website known for white nationalist views.
When confronted about the content, Sheriff Falco excused the posts by saying he meant to send them as private messages.
Sheriff Falco’s posts received hundreds of likes and comments on Facebook. Some of his followers posted threats of violence toward Black people to the comment sections of Falco’s posts, referring to Black people as “dogs” and “apes” and invoking statements such as “Kill the bastards,” “Bring back public hangings” and “shoot the perp, save the courts.”
Sheriff Falco did not discourage or delete these comments until public outcry drew media attention.
It’s time to investigate the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department
Demilitarize the Police
Under the guise of arming local police in the “war on drugs”, the US Congress passed a National Defense Authorization Action in 1997, which allowed for law enforcement agencies to acquire excess property from the Department of Defense.
According to reporting over $7.4 billion in Defense Department property has been shipped to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies.
After the national display of militarization against peaceful protesters in Ferguson, MO, President Barack Obama ended the program by executive order. Not two years later, President Donald Trump lifted this order.
We know that The Hudson Valley Park Police received twelve 5.56 millimeter assault rifles, and Ramapo police received a military grade infrared light aiming kit from the United States Department of Defense.
Perhaps most alarmingly, Clarkstown Police received even more items from the DoD, including twenty-three 7.62 millimeter assault rifles, a night vision viewer and night vision goggles, and an armored truck, valued at $65,000.
Clarkstown also operates two high- end drones, and has signed a contract with Amazon—along with six other Rockland County precincts—to use neighborhood surveillance data through its RingTM home security cameras.
Black and Brown communities are the most impacted by this equipment. According to the ACLU, the use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”
The Rockland People’s Panel on Policing calls for a full review of the military and surveillance equipment in all of the county police forces. We support the two bills introduced inJune 2020 in the NYS Assembly and Senate that would prohibit a state or local law enforcement agency from receiving or purchasing the specific property from a military equipment surplus program operated by the federal government.
Investigate Personnel Ties to White Supremacist Organizations
If the same seditious behavior that recently paralyzed our nation’s capital repeated itself here inRockland County, the intervention of impartial enforcement officers would be required to protect life, property and civil society.
Last month, the Rockland People’s Panel on Policing sent a letter to all police departments in our county asking if they have taken steps to determine if any of their personnel participated in the criminal acts of sedition in our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021.
On February 17, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and the NAACP filed a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump, his attorney Rudy Giuliani, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers for violating the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. The lawsuit accuses them of inciting the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
The Rockland People’s Panel on Policing calls upon all police departments in our county to investigate and terminate any personnel who are members of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers or any other white supremacist organizations or who participated in any way with the insurrection in our nation’s capitol on January 6, 2021.
Review & Reallocate Police Budgets & Resources
Rockland County taxpayers pay the second-highest property taxes in the United States. This is in large part because we are funding costly, excessive law enforcement budgets —totaling over $200M countywide.
Rockland police receive among the highest annual compensation in the country—averaging $149,481 per officer. Other major unnecessary expenses—like the Sheriff’s Mounted Unit—contribute to the bloated police budgets across Rockland, as do the expenses of lawsuit settlements, such as the $300,000 paid by Clarkstown in the case brought by We the People. (Even when the settlement is paid by an insurance company, the rising insurance cost is borne by taxpayers.)
Effective law enforcement departments should pay fair wages for well-trained officers focused on maintaining peace and serving the community. Excessive salaries and overtime often result from a lack of effective checks and balances and a lack of accountability. Overtime is sometimes necessary for public safety, but it is often abused and overused.
Police associations hold a great deal of power in setting the salaries of officers (and in influencing regulations governing policing at the county, state, and federal levels). Although these associations are sometimes called unions, they share little in common with the labor unions that advocate on behalf of working people. These groups usually do not negotiate in the best interest of all of the people of Rockland County— they negotiate with the sole interest of their membership. They are often negotiating with elected officials who receive generous campaign contributions from police unions and the officers themselves.
Our core recommendation to review and reallocate police budgets is that every contract negotiation include representatives of the community served by the agency and always center the voices and experiences of people of color.
Develop a countywide mental health support network
On January 4, 2020, after being handcuffed and shot with a stun gun by the police during a mental health episode, Tina Davis, a Spring Valley resident, died. Her death reflects therisk of death by law enforcement that individuals in a mental health crisis face, a risk compounded for people of color.
The Mental Health Committee of the Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow was formed in the wake of Tina Davis’ death and Rockland’s People’s Panel on Policing embraces that report. I am a member of both groups.
The Mental Health Committee has studied how Rockland County can improve its response to behavioral health crises so that people like Tina Davis and so many others, including those with dementia, autism and other disabilities, do not die, face injury, arrest, or other trauma at the hands of police.
The nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that those with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than are other people approached by law enforcement. Black and Brown men are two-and-a-half times more likely to die. 16 times!
A 2016 study reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that 20% to 50% of fatal encounters with police involved a person with mental illness. 50%!
The RCENJC Mental Health Committee includes people living with mental illness and mental health clinicians who work with agitated individuals who may act in a bizarre manner. We know that police always pose the threat of lethal force and can escalate a mental health crisis to a dangerous level. People with mental illness, especially those of color, can easily be triggered by police uniforms, lights, guns, and harsh commands, causing them to become more agitated.
Many families struggle alone to calm a volatile or distraught loved one, too afraid to call 911 because of the threat of lethal force. Those who do risk calling 911 suffer devastating guilt and trauma if their family member is arrested, injured, or killed.
Rockland County is poorly equipped to deal with mental health crises. Rockland’s Behavioral Health Response Team (BHRT) cannot respond to the volume of calls it receives, nor to the rich diversity of Rockland’s communities. BHRT is not available late night to early morning. Even desperate calls for a suicidal person have been met with “we’re too busy.” Rockland has only one Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), whose 16 voluntarily trained officers are limited to the Clarkstown Police Department.
Across the country, major cities and smaller areas like Albany County, NY are moving police out of front line mental health crisis response. Our Committee recommends a countywide Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) model in Rockland County.
A CAHOOTS team consists of a medic (a nurse, paramedic, or EMT) and a crisis worker. Staff are not law enforcement people, do not carry weapons and use their training and experience to ensure a non-violent resolution.
We demand that Rockland County create a CAHOOTS-modeled program that would promote the safety and well-being of both the community and the police and, when fully implemented, result in substantial cost savings for Rockland County.
Create an Intimate Partner Violence Bill of Rights
Black women experience intimate partner violence (IPV) at higher rates than women overall. Research from the Institute of Women’s Policy shows that 41.2 percent of Black women experience physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetimes, compared with 31.5 percent of all women.
However, Black women—as well as members of other marginalized groups—must think twice before calling law enforcement when confronted by intimate partner violence. Black and Brown women know there are consequences of contacting any government agency that not only has a long history of racial discrimination, but also a well-documented culture of toxic masculinity.
Studies have found that up to 40% of police families have experienced domestic violence, 2- to 4-times higher than the national average.
Given that only 12.8 percent of full-time law enforcement officers are female, the odds are high that a male officer will respond to a call relating to IPV and that the officer could be an abuser.
We demand that Rockland County — along with the state of New York and the federal government — make bold changes in support of victims and survivors of intimate partner violence.
We demand the inclusion of officer-involved domestic violence in a national database of police misconduct.
The creation of an independent agency in Rockland County to investigate domestic violence—free of law enforcement involvement.
And that Officers who commit domestic violence should not be allowed to keep their badges and guns.
Police agencies in Rockland County must enforce the state law enacted in 2019 to require that “the victim of a family offense may make a complaint to any law enforcement agency in the state regardless of where the act took place.
This law was created to address an incident that happened with my daughter, who at 18, was refused the right to make a report in Haverstraw, and told she’d have to return to Queens, NY where she had been assaulted.
Finally, we demand that Rockland County law enforcement agencies contract with organizations like the Center For Safety and Change to create an Intimate Partner Violence Bill of Rights, which would be prominently displayed in every County Law Enforcement office, enumerating all of the rights of IPV survivors
Enact real civilian oversight of policing in Rockland County
We, the Rockland People’s Panel on Policing, declare that without holding police accountable to the communities they claim to serve, there is no justice in policing. That is why we are calling the county to contract with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement on establishing a county-wide, citizen- led civilian oversight board.
Nationwide, more than 200 Civilian Review Agencies have been established by communities in order to bring accountability to police officers and departments and bridge the gap between police and the populations they are meant to serve.
Establishing civilian oversight structures that listen to the needs of the people and has the power to determine when a function of law enforcement is not acting in the needs of the community is an urgent prerequisite to rectifying the trust between law enforcement and communities. After all, police are meant to answer the needs of the community to make us all safer. If we truly believe that Black Lives Matter, establishing a COB is a necessary mechanism to put those words into action.
Until recently, police misconduct records were confidential under a New York Civil Rights Law known as 50-a, which kept personnel records of police, corrections officers, and firefighters from public view—including records pertaining to police misconduct. While the initial reasons for the law may have been benign, the results have been harrowing, and in many instances deadly.
Here’s just one example, the police officer, Daniel Panteleo, who strangled Eric Garner to death on Staten Island in 2014, was found to have seventeen police misconduct allegations filed against him, four of which resulted in a recommendation of disciplinary action.
With guidance from a respected national organization, we demand the establishment of a civilian oversight structure that is proactive, Independent, Community-Driven, Well-funded and possessing subpoena power.
To join the Rockland People’s Panel on Policing to help transform our report into local law.
Click here to read the full report.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: The Final Report of Rockland People’s Panel on Policing” © 2020 Bill Batson.