Schenectady civilian police panel nears restart
Civilian reviewers eye resurgent role
SCHENECTADY The Civilian Police Review Board does not get high marks from the members who have labored on it for the last decade.
They said the board was ineffective, powerless and did not accomplish its goals of leading the police improvement and fostering better communication between police and the public.
But some of them still have hope for the next attempt.
The board is down to two members. City officials have asked the groups who appoint members to the board to make new appointments, in hopes of starting afresh in a couple of months.
Former chairwoman Emy Murphy and others said the board will have to change many things to become a useful agency.
“I never felt that it achieved the purpose it was meant to achieve,” Murphy said. “We were trying to recommend training [for the police] and nothing ever really happened.”
Other members echoed her, saying that nearly every effort they made to improve the police failed.
Former member Fred Lee said he gave up on the board.
At first, he said, he thought the board was an important tool to improve public relations with the police.
“Now I feel it’s absolutely irrelevant,” he said. “I’m really saddened about this.”
Rivera shooting cited
The board should have shown “leadership” after the shooting of Luis Rivera in 2011, Lee said.
While facing down police, Rivera pulled out a non-working gun, but threw it away and ran. The gun was real — but broken, so it could not be loaded. But police had no way to know that from their first glimpse of it. When Rivera pulled it out, they started to shoot. He died from his injuries.
Residents who saw only part of the shooting — an unarmed man running down the street and collapsing under police fire — were incensed. Until a video was released recently, some residents accused police of deliberately and unnecessarily executing the man.
Lee said the board’s role was clear.
“They should’ve immediately called a public forum … and have an open discussion about it,” Lee said. “They didn’t. They hid.”
Former member Helga Schroeter, who was on the board during the shooting, agreed that the board should do public outreach.
She also complained that the board was never given the file on the shooting.
“Those are the kinds of situations you might think would be at least cause for review,” she said. “The idea is to really make sure there’s an independent review if something really controversial occurs.”
But, she said, the board never gets to review controversial cases.
“We don’t have much power. That’s one of the frustrating parts. A case like that [shooting] never came to us,” she said. “It would be good to know why we don’t get any of the more serious cases.”
She and Lee wanted the board to organize public training, to teach young adults what to do — and not to do — during a police stop. Top of the list: don’t pull out a gun, even to throw it away.
But, they said, police need training, too. Most of the complaints they received revolved around courtesy.
Again and again, residents said officers acted disrespectfully, or escalated a conflict, or failed to diffuse one.
Given the repetition of the complaints, Schroeter questioned how well police are actually trained to handle tense, nervous or angry citizens.
“We are always told they are constantly training. Well …” said Schroeter. “There’s a lot of room for improvement, on both sides.”
Murphy said training in courtesy, managing the mentally ill and diffusing conflict were regular points of frustration. As far as she could tell, police did not take her repeated recommendations to improve training.
She even managed to get a grant for a public talk on intolerance, which she envisioned as a community meeting that would include residents and the police.
The police department never used the grant, she said.
From success to nuisance
Former member Darlene Lee said the board was not always ineffective.
“I think in the beginning it was effective — it was very effective,” she said. “It took [police complaints] off the front page and it made people feel they had an avenue they could go to.”
But as time went on, the board did not bring change. And people sensed that, she said.
“They don’t feel anymore that if they file a complaint, anything will be done with it,” she said.
Board members said the public’s perception was right.
“To me, it felt like an exercise,” Murphy said.
She got the impression that police didn’t want the board’s input.
She called the experience “hair-pulling” frustration.
“The bottom line is, we were more of a nuisance,” she said.
But she had seen some reason for hope in the last year.
The new internal affairs officer, Lt. Edward Barbagelata, “actually listened,” she said.
Sometimes, when board members argued that a complaint was proven by witness statements, he agreed to change the department’s ruling on the case to “substantiated,” she said.
The board was never told how officers were disciplined in those cases, or why the department — which had the same witness statements — had originally decided that the cases were unsubstantiated.
While Barbagelata was better than previous internal affairs officers, the changes only happened “sometimes,” she said.
“But the sad thing is it’s all based on personality. So if he leaves, it doesn’t work again,” she said.
Chief of Police Brian Kilcullen did not return a call for comment but last month he spoke in support of keeping the review board.
New roles sought
Like other members, Murphy said the board must do more than simply review complaints.
She envisions an advisory group that uses data pulled from the complaints to set up community forums.
If the board saw a trend in racial profiling complaints, for example, she said an advisory group could hold a meeting in which the police and the public would learn about different cultures.
If complaints showed a trend of problems in Vale Park, the group could call together the relevant agencies that could solve those problems, she said.
“That’s what’s needed. Longtime leadership,” she said.
For now, Connie Richardson and Vickie Hurewitz are the only members on the board, after the City Council changed its makeup of the and eliminated certain seats.
But those two will soon be joined by others. The League of Women Voters has chosen its representative to the board, and the Schenectady Inner City Ministry is choosing its new representative soon.
SICM Executive Director Phillip Grigsby said he’s hopeful the “restart” will lead to a better board.
He wants the board to institute mediation between police and residents, which he thinks will have a direct impact on the way the public views the police. Mediation is allowed in the board’s charter, but hasn’t been implemented.
But most of all, he doesn’t want the board to die.
“Every community of our size needs a board to play a regular monitoring role,” he said. “Any system that’s watched gets better … Hopefully they’ll reconvene and move ahead.”