I count myself as one of the majority of residents who is proud of our City of Amsterdam Police Department and believes that overall, they are doing a great job. While protests and riots sparked by the death of George Floyd and other incidents of Black people dying while in police custody erupted in our major cities last year, things in Amsterdam remained peaceful. I believe the large, peaceful demonstration held in front of the city’s public safety building last summer was a great example of the comparatively good relations our officers have with the community.
In response to the growing calls for reform within America’s police departments, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on June 12, 2020 requiring every police department in New York State to conduct a comprehensive review of their operations and policies, seek input from the public as to problems that may exist in their jurisdictions, and issue a plan addressing those problems.
The plan recently proposed by the City of Amsterdam lists a number of new initiatives, all of which I think are good, the most important being the implementation of body cameras for all officers, revision to the city’s use of force policies with corresponding training, and a new standardized complaint form. The plan also references existing youth outreach programs and training on how to respond to mental health issues.
You can read the full reform plan here. A public hearing on the plan will be held on March 16 at 5:30pm. The hearing will be virtual, so you will have to post your comments on the city’s Facebook page.
The report indicates that Mayor Michael Cinquanti and Police Chief John Thomas, as directed by the executive order, engaged in multiple discussions with residents and community leaders and includes the results of a survey of the community.
However the report does not include any indication, even in a summary form, of what issues were brought up at the various community meetings that they attended.
I submitted a request via email for further information about what was discussed at the meetings to the police department on Monday. Not having received a response as of Wednesday, I followed up with a message to Cinquanti. If I receive any new information, I will be glad to post a follow up article to this one.
The report also includes results from a survey. 61% of respondents gave the department a score of 5, when asked to rate their interactions with the police department from 1-5, with 5 being “fair and professional” and 1 being “unfair and unprofessional”. That’s certainly a very good indicator and is certainly a result to be proud of.
However, a total of 25% of respondents rated the department with a score of less than 5. Although that percentage is low, it’s certainly not insignificant. Without any additional questions about the nature of the incidents perceived as less-than-fair, how do we know what to make of that number? Does the proposed reform plan address those incidents? Without further information, there’s simply no way to know.
The survey also solicited suggestions from the public as to what the department could do better. The greatest number of respondents said “nothing/doing a great job.” Again – a result to be proud of. But the next highest tallies for suggestions included “more police presence”, “more police”, “more/better communication”, “better attitude”, and “more traffic enforcement”.
It’s hard for me to see any connection between these suggestions and the actions proposed by the reform plan.
Certainly, body cameras may be the best “catch-all” solution to provide accountability on the larger, national issue of higher rates of death for Black and Latino people while in police custody.
But how significant are racial problems here in Amsterdam? Of course, that’s a question no politician wants to touch.
I’d like to believe that racial relations are better now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. But as we’ve seen in other cities, all it takes is one incident to undermine the trust a police department has with it’s community. I don’t want an incident like that to happen here.
When introducing the reform plan at the last common council meeting on March 2, Cinquanti said, “Our administration passionately defends every good cop on our city’s force and every proper law enforcement action they take without exception. But our administration also will not tolerate bad cops abusing their badge. And having said that, the need for me to have to defend the action of this city’s police force is not anything that keeps me up at night because we are blessed with an outstanding roster of law enforcement professionals in the city and outstanding departmental leadership.”
While I agree with the positive sentiments that Cinquanti makes about the police department, the lack of mention of any type of problem, general or specific, not even one minor issue to speak of, makes me wonder what may have been overlooked or what might have been glossed over. Or maybe nothing’s been overlooked. Who knows without more information?
Cinquanti also referred to modifications to the department’s policies, including those pertaining to the use of force.
He said the changes would “guarantee [the policies] would never be used to initiate, condone, or justify the types of actions or abuses we witnessed in Minnesota.”
Making sure a policy is not used as justification for abuse is certainly a good start. But changing a policy by itself doesn’t guarantee abuse won’t happen, it just guarantees the city’s policy can’t be blamed.
Looking at the efforts of the neighboring cities of Schenectady and Albany, we can see a much more comprehensive and complete record of the process. Follow either of those links and you’ll find recordings of the various community meetings and more well-supported reasons for the reforms they proposed.
Back when I was part of the Amsterdam neighborhood watch program from 2009 to 2014, I got to hear a lot of complaints that people had about the police department. During meetings, police officers did a fantastic job of listening, explaining, and sometimes coming up with actual solutions. That’s how trust is built and maintained, not by pretending everything is just fine.
I always appreciated the attitude that former police chief Greg Culick expressed during many of the meetings he attended personally.
“We’re always looking for ways to do our jobs better,” is what I remember him saying. And I think that’s exactly the right outlook for professionals of any type to have.
The actions proposed in the reform plan are all good ones, there’s no reason to oppose any of them. However, my concern is the city has missed an opportunity for a moment of true self-evaluation and transparency. The reform plan simply doesn’t provide enough details to support the very reforms it suggests. Without that information, we as residents, who are being asked to weigh in on the plan this coming Tuesday, have no idea whether these steps will actually help make our city become better or not.