NY town's new policing plan: 'Foundational steps,' but room for improvement

The plan lays out nine "core recommendations," including the creation of a community board that will serve as a bridge between the town's residents and police

Massarah Mikati
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
BETHLEHEM, N.Y. — The town board unanimously approved its new vision for the Bethlehem Police Department Wednesday night after five months of study and debate by a 19-person advisory committee, with input from the public from five community forums.

The result was the Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative Plan, which lays out nine "core recommendations," including the creation of a community board that will serve as a bridge between the town's 35,000 residents and the police department.

The creation of such new policing plans was mandated by a June 12 executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo in reaction to the nationwide protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, during his May 25 arrest by Minneapolis police officers.

But town officials have long been contemplating and discussing the concepts of racial equality and new policing ideas behind the plan, town Supervisor David VanLuven said, stressing that Bethlehem has an "outstanding" police department whose members were critical to the plan's development.

"The creation of this plan is by no means the completion of the effort to address the challenges identified within it," VanLuven said. "Black lives matter in Bethlehem — in our government, our schools, and our community — and we are committed to achieving greater justice, equity, and fairness in Bethlehem, not just in words, but in actions."

The plan comes on the heels of a year of racial reckoning for the predominantly white town that borders the city of Albany.

At the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement that spread throughout the country last year, Bethlehem residents reached a point of tension at Four Corners when Black Lives Matter protestors and Back the Blue protestors rallied at the same time on July 4th.

And throughout the national discourse over ways to dismantle systemic racism and show support for Black Americans, a controversy ripped through the town's Tri-Village Little League when a father proposed sponsoring a Black Lives Matter banner to be hung at McGee Field. After months of debate and re-votes, the all-white, predominantly male board ultimately voted in January to not hang the banner.

Xavier Cruz, president of Bethlehem for Social Justice and a member of the advisory committee, said the racial reckoning Bethlehem has faced has been analogous for much of the country.

"In places that have... an upper-middle class community that is almost entirely white people, (they) are always more than willing to voice progressive issues almost exclusively except for when it comes to things like criminal justice reform, things like equitable housing," Cruz said. "When it came to seriously rethinking the way our police operate, the same narrative kept coming up, which was 'The police are here to prevent school shootings, the police are going to prevent' whatever fantastical crime they think they're preventing."

As such, the advisory committee had a multitude of sometimes contentious meetings over the course of a few months that some members complained were dominated with law enforcement voices, rather than voices from social workers, activists and psychologists that could speak to safe alternatives to policing.

However, Cruz and other members said the meetings became more productive over time, and were cautiously pleased with the result of their months-long work, highlighting plan initiatives such as the creation of the community advisory board — though Cruz pointed out the board should have been given subpoena powers — updating data-gathering methods for traffic enforcement, and a plan to incorporate social workers and mental health experts into the police department.

"These are foundational steps for a town that's probably never considered police reform in its existence," Cruz said.

There were, though, some disappointments for committee members and Bethlehem residents, especially in regards to school resource officers. A number of residents submitted public comments urging to pull SROs and DARE instructors from Bethlehem schools — which some committee members agreed with — because of disproportionate and sometimes aggressive punishment toward students of color. But throughout meetings, elected officials said the Bethlehem Central School District administration and Board of Education would have to make the decision to pull SROs from their buildings — and that they could opt for state troopers to replace SROs instead.

Another disappointment voiced about the plan, which is posted on the town's website, was that it said they would "consider" the creation of a body camera program, which some said was careful wording to avoid any commitment or accountability. However, the report stipulated that the police department and union support body cameras, but that more research on funding, management and appropriate policies needs to be done before committing to the program.

Bethlehem's town board, one of the more progressive-leaning in the Capital Region, promoted Gina Cocchiara to chief of police in August. She is the first female and openly gay police chief in Bethlehem and the eighth female police chief in the state.

"The Bethlehem Police Department today is very different from the one I joined as a young officer in 1998," Cocchiara said. "Change doesn't always come easily, but it is often necessary. Looking forward, I envision a modernized community-based police department that is fair and equitable."

The 19-person advisory committee, which included three high-ranking members of the police department, the town board, 10 community members, a religious leader, a local prosecutor and public defender, met ten times and held five community forums.
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