Oswego city and county police complete reform plans

OSWEGO — The Oswego city and county police departments’ reform and reinvention plans, mandated by gubernatorial executive order, are now complete. The city’s has been approved by the Common Council and will be sent on to the state for approval. The county’s awaits the county legislature’s blessing, and then it too will go on to the state.

In many ways, the plans are similar. Four points in particular stand out.

First and foremost is anti-bias training. Both plans make it mandatory and annual. Demographically, Oswego County is hardly the melting pot America professes to be. It is 96% white. Some would say that is exactly why our police need such training, while others would say it is exactly why they don’t. It is hard to show systemic bias against such a very low number of minorities.

As the city’s anti-bias training explains, “The face of America continues to evolve, and our nation is more diverse than ever before. People in cities, suburbs, and towns served by law enforcement are a rich tapestry of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures. This diverse group of individuals deserves to be treated with kindness, compassion, and respect ... Recognizing the diversity and types of bias when serving the community will reduce misunderstandings, confusion, and stereotypes while promoting knowledge and awareness for the officer.”

A second common objective of both plans is de-escalation training, lowering the confrontational temperature so that cooler heads might prevail, thereby coming to peaceful resolutions rather than violent ones.

Both plans stress the importance of de-escalation, a philosophy that has not always been a part of police work. In fact, in some police departments, the exact opposite, a path of quick escalation leading to the use of force and the submission of the accused, was taught. The shortcomings of that philosophy are finally being realized nationwide and both the city and county plans here have been working towards a de-escalation philosophy over the past few years and consider such training mandatory. It leads perfectly into the third common theme of both plans: minimizing the use of force.

Over the past five years, the county Sheriff’s Department’s record on the use of force has been impressive in its restraint. According to figures from the Sheriff’s Department, from Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2020, the department handled 141,611 complaints and a total of 81 uses of force reported. Eighteen of those reported uses of force were simply displaying a Taser to gain compliance. In that time, the department has had one use of force that resulted in a fatality (a firearm discharge). This translates to .00057% of complaints that result in a use of force and a .000008% fatality rate. Training in minimizing the use of force is a mandatory part of both plans.

The fourth and final major point on which both plans agree is the addition of mental health experts in dealing with mental health issues that, up until now, police have had to handle on their own. Experienced mental health professionals will now be called in to assist in dealing with suicidal persons, persons displaying erratic behavior, or perhaps domestic disputes. Oswego’s Mayor William Barlow stressed these professionals will never be called upon to deal with such situations alone. They will always be accompanied by a police officer.

Two other changes of note relevant to both the city and county police departments: chokeholds are banned and body cameras are on the rise. In the city, every officer will now wear a body camera. The county says it has also made significant investments in doing so.

Lastly, the county Sheriff’s Department created a survey while putting their plan together. They received 230 responses. Here are some of the questions and answers from that survey.

On the question “On a scale of one to 10, how satisfied are you with the Oswego County Sheriff’s Department?,” 51% gave the department a 10.

On the question, “Do you feel law enforcement should respond to non-criminal complaints (such as property disputes, civil complaints, animal problems)?,” 59% said yes; 24% said no.

On the question, “Do you want law enforcement to respond to mental health complaints?,” 71% said yes; 22% said a medical professional or non-law enforcement personnel should respond.

On the question, “Should law enforcement have a presence in schools?,” 71% said yes; 18% said no. The department currently has nine officers in fours school districts within the county.

Fifty-one percent of respondents strongly disagreed with the statement, “The deputies of the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office are biased in their investigations with certain groups of people.”

On the question, “Should Social Services respond to some complaints instead of law enforcement?,” 31% said yes; 49% said no.

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