County police reform approval called rushed

A Potsdam police vehicle drives by Black Lives Matter ralliers in summer 2020 in front of the Potsdam Post Office, 21 Elm St. Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — More than three months ahead of the state’s deadline to comply with Executive Order 203, the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office reform package was approved by county lawmakers in December. But constituents wanted more time to consider the measure.

Titled New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative and part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Say Their Name” police reform agenda, the June order followed the May 25 killing of 46-year-old George P. Floyd by Minneapolis police.

The sheriff’s office review culminated in a certification by the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators during a public hearing and special meeting on Dec. 21. During the YouTube Live hybrid meeting — some officials attended in person and others participated over Zoom — a move to table the vote until January failed 11-4. The resolution to certify the sheriff’s office police reform plan passed 13-2, with Legislators John H. Burke, R-Norfolk, and Daniel G. Fay, D-Canton, opposed.

Mr. Burke and Mr. Fay said constituents had contacted them either concerned about technological accessibility of the public hearing and special meeting or about the hearing scheduled so close to Christmas.

During the board’s full meeting Monday night, four letters from community members were read aloud, all indicating disappointment in the board declining to postpone the approval until January.

In a joint letter to legislators, the leadership team of the North Country Poor People’s Campaign — a regional chapter of the national economic, racial and environmental justice advocacy group — cites arrest and incarceration data published annually by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

In 2019, according to data sourced from the state Computerized Criminal History repository and the National Center for Health Statistics, St. Lawrence County’s population was 93% white and 6% people of color, who are noted as Black, Hispanic or Asian people. Race for the remaining 1% is listed as “unknown.”

Of the county’s total arrests that year, roughly 12% were people of color. Of only the felony arrests in the county, more than 17% were people of color — nearly three times the POC percent population — and of all prison sentences, 23% were imposed on people of color. POC figures for arrests and sentences are all greater than the POC percent population. White people in the county accounted for 85% of overall arrests, 79% felony arrests and 75% prison sentences, all portions less than the white percent population.

“These figures are disturbing,” the Poor People’s Campaign letter reads in part. “Are we to conclude that POC are twice as likely to commit a crime? Or might there be other factors at work? ... Are we to conclude that POC are likely to commit more serious crimes than whites? Or might there be other factors?”

In the three other letters submitted to the board, residents questioned whether legislators were negligent in not postponing the vote or whether they had fostered a “missed opportunity” for those wanting to comment.

Reform packages must be developed in collaboration with the public through an “open process on policing strategies and tools” and be open for public comment before any proposed policy changes are presented to local municipal bodies for approval, according to the governor’s order.

In December, Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, and Sheriff Brooks J. Bigwarfe both said the county has done its “due diligence” responding to the order.

Through late summer and fall, the sheriff’s office reform process involved reviewing existing policies and identifying areas in need of improvement, with a 16-member advisory group first meeting in October and again that month in a public meeting. Sheriff Bigwarfe presented proposed reform measures to the county board’s Operations Committee on Nov. 9, prior to the Dec. 21 public hearing and subsequent approval.

The sheriff’s office package includes equipping deputies with body cameras, improving the debrief process after officers are involved in critical incidents, participating in additional mental health response training, reviewing policies annually and hosting periodic public forums.

Legislators on Monday night approved a 2021 budget modification to appropriate $50,000 in contingency funds for the purchase of body camera equipment and software for the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Bigwarfe on Wednesday said in-person quarterly forums are still in the planning stages and will likely be delayed this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. Each forum would ideally be hosted in a different section of the county, he said, and the sheriff’s office would address concerns related to police reform or any other issue.

“We can learn and educate and always get better,” he said.

The sheriff said police reform is a “fluid situation” and requires ongoing attention, as well as an “open door policy.” County residents or groups wanting to discuss reform further, he said, may call to set up a virtual or in-person meeting. The sheriff’s office administrative line is 315-379-2365.

“I think the public has the misconception that, as soon as you send your police reform package to the governor, it’s over,” he said. “And it isn’t over. It continues.”

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