WATERTOWN — Jefferson County has released a draft version of its police reform plan for public review and will take public comment on the topic Thursday.
In a 21-page document, available on the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office website, the sheriff’s office described how the drafting process was carried out, who was involved, what the reform committee’s findings were and what the next steps for the reform process are. The document also describes how the sheriff’s office is organized and how training is conducted.
The public on Thursday will have the opportunity to comment on the reform plan in two separate online forums, hosted via Zoom. One will be held at 3 p.m. and another at 6 p.m. Rules on participation will be enforced. More information on meeting ID numbers can be found online at co.jefferson.ny.us/departments/SheriffsOffice.
The reform plan includes a number of recommendations for the sheriff’s office. Firstly, it calls to consider reinstating the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. program, in county schools.
D.A.R.E. is a police-led program where an officer goes into K-12 classrooms and teaches students how to avoid drugs, organized gangs and violence. Jefferson County previously participated in the program from 1997 to 2013.
Chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators Scott A. Gray, who led the police reform initiative alongside Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill, said he believes the D.A.R.E. program helps allow students to relate to police at a more human level.
“I think, if it’s done right, it’s beneficial because part of the reason you put a police officer in the school is to make them approachable,” he said. “Kids can learn to relate to an officer, and that’s part of the underlying benefit of the D.A.R.E. program.”
Mr. Gray said perhaps the most important part of the plan is its call for the sheriff’s office to prioritize mental health in its activities and plans moving forward. The plan calls for the sheriff’s office to find some way to extend care to mentally ill people who have the police called on them.
“It’s such a complex issue, but on the other hand, it’s something that’s extremely necessary to address,” he said. “So many of the situations the sheriff’s office responds to can be dealt with, probably better, by diversion into a mental health care program.”
Mr. Gray said there are major questions about how to implement a program for referrals, or have mental health care experts respond to certain calls. Who would make the determination between which call requires a social worker or mental health care program and which requires a police response? Where would they get the resources needed to expand local mental health care programs that would be required?
The issue is one of great importance to the county moving forward, Mr. Gray said, and discussions for an answer are ongoing.
“If there’s one huge positive that came out of this whole process, it’s the fact that our Community Services Board, with Tim Ruetten, and law enforcement, are engaged,” Mr. Gray said.
Mr. Ruetten is the director of Jefferson County’s Community Services Department.
The reform plan also calls for the sheriff’s office to undertake diversity training by diverse individuals, as most formal training is done by other police officers.
The plan calls for sheriff’s deputies to participate in civilian-led conversations, facilitated by Jefferson Community College, about implicit bias awareness so officers can understand the issue from the perspective of those they police.
The reform plan also calls for officers to receive more training on the concept of cultural humility.
“Cultural humility is a humble and respectful attitude towards individuals of other cultures that pushes one to challenge their own cultural biases, realize they cannot possibly know everything about other cultures, and approach learning about other cultures as a lifelong goal and process,” the reform document reads.
Through the reform process, this issue was identified as an area where training could improve all aspects of the sheriff’s office’s relationship with the community.
According to the reform plan, body cameras for officers were discussed briefly during the committee’s meetings, but the sheriff’s office has begun the process to study whether body cameras would be useful additions to their equipment lists.
The final recommendation, Mr. Gray said, is more of a message from the county to the state. Currently, the sheriff’s office operates within the civil service structure of the state bureaucracy. Under New York state Civil Service Laws, state agencies are allowed to hire from a list of three people who passed an applicable civil service test. No matter how large or small the list of possible applicants, the agency must choose from the three provided options.
For promotions, the only candidates who can be considered must also score among the top three on a competitive exam.
“It almost completely eliminates agencies’ administration from considering qualified candidates who fall below that level and diversifying the supervisory ranks of an agency,” the reform plan reads.
To put together this reform plan, a 16-member committee of “stakeholders” was organized, including Steve Wood, Black River chief of police; Todd O’Brien from the county sheriff’s office; Anita Seigfried-Brown from the Alliance for Better Communities; Patricia Dziuba, chief assistant district attorney; Julie Hutchins, Jefferson County public defender; County Legislator Phil Reed, West Carthage Mayor Scott Burto; Mr. Ruetten; Carthage Central School District Superintendent Jennifer Premo; and Tammy Kitto with the Community Action Planning Council. Kim Monroe with CareGivers Home Care in Watertown was also on the committee, as were Linda Dittrich with Jefferson Community College and Sam Purington with Volunteer Transportation Center.
A previously incarcerated individual was also invited to sit on the committee, but they never attended a meeting.
That committee, under the directive of an executive order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, met four times. The governor issued an executive order — New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative — last year mandating all police agencies in the state submit a reform plan by April 1, a deadline that’s quickly approaching, in order to be eligible for future state funding.
The executive order was issued in response to a national outcry last summer over the death of a Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
The Jefferson County committee, during their meetings, learned about the current policies and responsibilities of the sheriff’s office, current data on the sheriff’s office and its duties, training procedures and went into detailed review of the office’s code of conduct.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is comprised of a sheriff, undersheriff, lieutenant, five sergeants, eight detectives and 27 deputy sheriffs. Deputies act as a county-wide police force, taking on complaints, traffic duties, DWI operations, investigation of crimes and serve legal documents
According to the sheriff’s office, in 2020 their patrol division took on 16,752 calls, made 781 arrests, filed 60 DWI charges and issued 1,730 traffic tickets. The responded to 868 motor vehicle accidents and investigated 120 cases outside of background checks.
In both 2019 and 2020, out of all engagements with the public, only 3% resulted in arrests.
Mr. Gray said much of what the police reform initiative requested had already been done at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
Overall, Mr. Gray said the sheriff’s office does not have the structural problems the police reform initiative was meant to catch, but the reform process was an important step in catching where the sheriff’s office can improve.
“Fundamentally, our police department is performing well, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement,” he said.
The survey conducted by the county seems to reflect that position. Out of 395 respondents, 88.4% said they believe deputies treat the public fairly, and 85.3% said they believe deputies show concern for the community. Most of the respondents were 50 to 59 years old, and 88.4% indicated they were white. Of the respondents, 17.8% said they live in the city of Watertown.
According to the reform plan, the Center for Community Services as Jefferson Community College will conduct further surveys to get a better understanding of how the sheriff’s office is viewed by county residents.