Potsdam starts police reform review

Police reform advisory committee member Jennifer Baxtron, right, makes her case that the Garrett Phillips murder case and the prosecution of Nick Hillary have had a lasting effect on trust with Potsdam law enforcement. Vaughn Golden/Watertown Daily Times

POTSDAM — Stakeholders from the Potsdam community met Wednesday for the first of many meetings to discuss policing and the major topics needed to address what many in the room admitted will be a difficult and wide-ranging process.

Over the next six months the group, consisting of about 16 community members with a wide array of professional affiliations, will gather input, discuss and make recommendations regarding policies and practices of the Potsdam police department as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive order calling for reviews of every municipal law enforcement agency in the state.

While the path forward in terms of how the group will research and craft its recommendations still wasn’t entirely clear as of Wednesday, it’s obvious that many of the stakeholders hold deep passions and emotions about law enforcement and its role in the community.

“This is messy work,” said John D. Youngblood, a SUNY Potsdam professor and prominent Black Lives Matter Potsdam organizer, trying to capture the tough conversations ahead as the meeting concluded. “This is disagreeing with people I respect. This is agreeing with people I may not respect. But this is messy work. As we end today, I can feel the energy, the emotion.”

Several of those in the room shared stories about bad encounters with law enforcement over the years. Others, including Village Administrator Greg R. Thompson and Town Supervisor Ann M. Carvill, made reference to the fact that they hadn’t had any negative interactions with the police and pointed to implicit racial bias as a possibility of that.

Many in the room voiced concerns about how the police could be provided better resources, training or other personnel altogether to manage situations involving mental health emergencies or people under heavy influence of drugs. A short conversation also ensued about how the police could interface more personally with the community in non-emergency situations. Nobody suggested defunding the police.

But the conversation also entered into less cheery, arguably less amicable, waters as well, mostly in what are likely to be difficult discussions on racism and past failures of Potsdam police.

Jennifer Baxtron, a leader of Black Lives Matter Potsdam, brought up the Garrett Phillips murder case and Oral N. “Nick” Hillary’s ongoing civil rights lawsuit.

“We can’t move forward without working on what is not finished. There’s an open murder case, OK. There’s a civil lawsuit against you all because of the way you treated a Black man,” Ms. Baxtron said, addressing the group, which included both St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua and Potsdam Police Chief Mark R. Murray, the lead prosecutor and investigator in the case, respectively. “It’s something that’s not only in my heart, but is in many others’ hearts. This tragedy turned this village upside down and it still is that way today.”

Nick Hillary has a pending federal lawsuit against the village and its police department claiming, among other things, he was unlawfully pursued as a suspect arrested for Garrett’s murder, a charge for which he was acquitted at trial. On Wednesday, a judge dismissed former District Attorney Mary E. Rain and a deputy sheriff from the suit, but the action remains pending against Potsdam.

Mr. Pasqua, who sits on the similar police reform groups for all the law enforcement agencies in the county, responded amid some tense back and forth that he didn’t believe the case was relevant to the committee’s purpose.

“This group, and the purpose of this group, does not involve Garrett Phillips. That is not what this is for,” Mr. Pasqua said. “We are all here, you are all here, as stakeholders in this community to see what, if anything, policy-wise, medical professional-wise, where you want the Potsdam police department to head in that direction to make this community feel safe.”

Mr. Pasqua was rebutted by Mr. Youngblood and Ms. Baxtron who contended that the case, which remains unsolved, was part of the community’s ability to heal and its trust in the police. Mr. Thompson ultimately agreed as well, that the committee should look backward as well as forward in its efforts.

“Let’s see where things may have been done a little differently. Could things have had a different outcome? And at the same time you increase the level of trust by taking that look backward. I’m all for that,” Mr. Thompson said.

The group agreed to meet again in another two weeks. The meeting was not streamed or recorded for the public. Mr. Thompson said he hopes the group can establish some groundwork first before fully bringing in the public to the meetings.

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