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Attorneys, Residents Criticize Police Reform Process In NYS

Civil Rights Attorney Michael Sussman
WAMC, Allison Dunne
Civil Rights Attorney Michael Sussman

Civil rights attorneys have sent a letter with more than 300 signatures to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, asking to push back the April 1st deadline for communities to complete their police reforms. They say municipalities have not addressed the underlying issues of systemic racism and police misconduct.

The governor’s Executive Order 203 — the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan — requires local police agencies to modernize their strategies and programs based on community input. Orange County-based attorney Michael Sussman says implementation of the order has been uneven and generally leaves out the voices of people most affected.

“In our letter to the governor et. al., explicates exactly the problem — a top-down approach, a non-transparent approach, an exclusionary approach and an approach which refuses to look square-eye at the issue,” Sussman says.

Sussman hosted a virtual press conference Friday morning, during which he and another civil rights attorney, Luisa Fuentes read names being added to those in the original letter.

“So I would like to challenge law enforcement in our area and throughout New York state, specifically in reference to EO203, to ask your Black community members specifically what are their feelings about the police because that is the voice that is not being heard, that is the voice that is really not being requested and that is certainly not that voice that is being listened to because I can tell you, as a Black women, we have been talking about this for not weeks, not months, not years, but centuries,” Fuentes says.

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Separately, during a press briefing of his own Friday on COVID-19, Cuomo answered a reporter’s question on the police reform plans due April 1.

“The police can’t police without the trust and respect of the community, and the community will not allow policing by a police department that they think doesn’t trust them,” says Cuomo. “So you don’t really have an option. I liken it to a marriage, which is a bad analogy, but it has to work for both or it’s not going to work, right. And divorce is not an option here.”

Fuentes is a former Orange County assistant district attorney.

“I challenge all the police departments in our mid-Hudson Valley area to send out a big survey to your communities of color to find out exactly what it is they feel about your police department, your specific police officers and policing as a whole because I can guarantee you what you’re thinking is not what they’re thinking and experiencing,” Fuentes says. “And it is those voices that need to be heard to make a difference and to make sure EO203 is properly enacted throughout the region.”

Again, Sussman.

“There needs to be a newfound commitment to the ideals which were expressed by this requirement. The requirement cannot be circumvented by villages and towns, which have their town supervisor, police chief and town attorney doing the review,” Sussman says.

That was never its purpose. That can’t be its purpose today.”

The letter, also addressed to state Attorney General Letitia James and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, contains four demands, one of which is to extend the time frame from April 1 to November 1 for municipalities to implement their reforms. Again, Cuomo:

“If you don’t have a plan by April 1, then the state’s not going to fund you, or we’ll put in a monitor over your police, and the monitor will make sure everybody’s working to get that plan done,” Cuomo says.

Marc Pessin is with the Rockland People’s Panel on Policing.

“The panel was formed because we had an experience with the committees that were set up by the police and the townships,” says Pessin. “What we found out was, our experience was that they were not transparent, nobody knew that they were happening, the public was not invited, people were hand selected to come.”

He highlights that Cuomo’s executive order came after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody last year.

“And if the police departments are not changed, if we don’t see significant differences, then this is a terrible waste of all of our time, and we’re not going to let that happen,” Pessin says.

He says the Rockland People’s Panel will release a report in March on policing in the county. Sussman says other demands are to appoint compliance officers for each region in the state and to require police departments to provide information requested by panelists without the need for a Freedom of Information request or subpoena.

“In short, many communities, the anticipated reviews are not proceeding in a manner responsive  to the call, and this should be called out now, not by April 1 when we see the disappointing results,” Sussman says. “People cannot be left frustrated by this process, which was ballyhooed as a response to murder, to murder. Doing so will sow more anger and division and profoundly disserve the memory of those lost to police violence and in whose name this process is allegedly being carried out.”

The letter says a fourth demand is to require municipalities to create a website for the Executive Order 203 Committee that contains surveys for the public to fill out, provide information on sessions and provide public access to all police policies and procedures and provide transparency about police discipline and complaints.

UPDATE: Statement from Will Burns, First Deputy Press Secretary: “Governor Cuomo’s executive order is clear – it calls on community members, stakeholders, local elected officials and police to come to the table and be part of a collective effort to create transparent and fair law enforcement policies that reflect the desires of a specific community. With more than 500 law enforcement agencies in our large and diverse state, there is no "one size fits all" solution.  To rebuild the police-community relationship, each local government must convene stakeholders for a fact-based and honest dialogue about the public safety needs of their community.  Each community must envision for itself the appropriate role of the police.  Policies must be developed to allow the police to do their jobs to protect the public and these policies must meet with the local communities' acceptance."

Copyright 2021 WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Allison Dunne