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Uneven Police Reform Compliance Frustrates Mid-Hudson Communities

In Executive Order 203, Governor Cuomo gave officials a litmus test in community engagement. Their constituents say they’ve got a ways to go.

Widespread protests last summer prompted Governor Cuomo to issue an order mandating community-involved police reform in New York.
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Following the police killing of George Floyd and mass protests last summer, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued New York a challenge. Executive Order 203, announced June 12 of last year, mandated that New York localities submit plans by April 1 to “reform and reinvent” policing in their communities. Public officials weren’t meant to draft proposals behind closed doors—the order required collaboration with community members to create community-based visions for local policing.

This mission would be smoother for some municipalities than for others, a reality the Governor’s office recognizes in its 139-page EO 203 guide. “In some localities, that relationship is already strong. In others, it is frayed or broken.”

Despite the extensive guidebook and a fairly short executive order, government officials and community members had competing interpretations of Cuomo’s directive. Officials say they followed the order with due diligence. But some of their constituents counter that they phoned it in, or sabotaged community engagement efforts for complete control of the process.

In January, civil rights attorneys Luisa Fuentes and Michael Sussman surveyed EO 203 progress across the mid-Hudson. Their findings led them to believe government officials weren’t taking the governor’s order seriously: Across the region was evidence of race-neutral conversations about policing, little to no engagement with disproportionately policed communities, limited consideration for evidence-based policing, and self-congratulatory views of local policing. Some officials even exploited the physical distance the pandemic has forced upon human interaction. Silencing someone’s experiences with the police is only a mute button away on a Zoom meeting.

The two attorneys petitioned Cuomo to push the executive order deadline to November. They never got a direct response from his office. The Governor’s office also did not respond to The River’s multiple requests for comment.

“Municipalities are failing to abide by [EO 203], and there’s been no response from Albany,” Fuentes told The River before the April 1 deadline. “Why isn’t Albany outraged?”

Uneven approaches to the order may reflect the diverse issues municipalities face. Every community is different, so police reform and community engagement look different everywhere. But these different approaches may also reflect a lack of both instruction and oversight from the state, leaving major room for discretion on issues such as transparency and community outreach. The only compliance mechanism for 203 is the potential loss of state funding for not submitting a plan—essentially making the order a pass-fail test.

The River checked in with municipalities across the mid-Hudson about their EO 203 processes. Here we spotlight four communities’ experiences that reflect some shared struggles with EO 203, but which also tell unique and compelling narratives.

City of Poughkeepsie: An Establishment vs. Grassroots Approach

Over the years, the Poughkeepsie police department has initiated trainings and procedures recommended in President Obama’s 21st Century Task Force in Policing report—widely deemed the best blueprint for police reform—including implicit bias training, body-worn cameras, police-community engagement events, and procedural justice, an approach that focuses on building community trust.

But after public backlash following the arrests of two Black sisters in 2019, the city saw a need to strengthen community-police trust. That year officials launched the Procedural Justice Committee, made up of faith leaders, nonprofit heads, police union members, and other current and former city officials. Rather than convene a new group of community stakeholders to brainstorm EO 203 reforms, Mayor Rob Rolison tasked the Procedural Justice Committee with providing reform recommendations to the city. Rolison and Police Chief Thomas Pape would then complete a draft plan based on these suggestions and other community input.

Local residents and activists formed their own reform group, as well. The Poughkeepsie Community Action Collaborative (PCAC) researched evidence-based best practices in policing, surveyed residents about their experiences with city police, and developed its own reform recommendations. PCAC published its report nearly a month after the city released its draft reform plan.

The Poughkeepsie Community Action Collaborative surveyed residents about their experiences with police.

Brian Robinson, a PCAC member, says the group’s report rivals the city’s. “Data-driven solutions and analyzing what’s actually happening is completely absent from both the procedural justice committee and the police department’s [work],” he says.

Activists also criticized what they perceived as the city’s ambivalence about engaging Poughkeepsie’s overpoliced residents. Public forums and committees filled with police officers and government employees aren’t safe spaces for people to divulge their negative experiences with law enforcement, says Robinson. Six out of the committee’s 20 members are city police employees.

City council member Yvonne Flowers, the Procedural Justice Committee’s co-chair, says residents privately confided in her about their encounters with Poughkeepsie police, and that the city held a youth focus group where teens were encouraged not to censor their grievances with law enforcement. Within the committee’s own meetings, she says some civilians didn’t hold back their discontent. Flowers describes members of the reform group (10 out of 20 are Black) as standard bearers for city residents who frequently interact with police. “If you really look at the people who are on the committee, you will know each one of those people are actually really in the trenches doing work in the community,” she says.

As for quantitative data about local policing, such as arrest records, Flowers says the Common Council members had requested that data themselves. The committee’s focus was on lived experiences.

The Poughkeepsie Community Action Collaborative also requested policing data through a records request. When the city didn’t produce some of those records, PCAC member Bill Rubin filed suit. The group later analyzed FBI crime data and court documents, which show, according to their analysis, the city’s disproportionate policing of a minority Black population for minor, nonviolent offenses, as well as a steady arrest rate despite a gradual drop in crime between 2014 and 2019. Mayor Rolison denounced the activists’ analysis in a press statement as “riddled with innuendos, baseless allegations, faulty logic, and skewed statistics,” though the city has not pointed out any  specific errors.

“The city both provided data directly and directed community members to publicly accessible data from the FBI, but then it lashed out at community members for both the accuracy of the data and for applying generally accepted methods of analysis to that data,” says Robinson.

Rolison told The River that he and Pape also reviewed the PCAC’s preliminary report, in which they also found “some discrepancies in their data and observations.”

“Nevertheless, we believe our plan reflects many of the goals conveyed by the community and we are already implementing many of the aspects of the plan,” he says.

Robinson says the PCAC will continue to push for the recommendations in its reports: “Transparency and accountability are at the top of the list.”

Read Poughkeepsie’s full report here. You can read the Poughkeepsie Community Action Collaborative’s competing report here, and an addendum with the arrest and crime data here.

Town of Warwick: A Clash of Ideologies

Warwick has all the trappings of the idyllic American small town, despite being home to around 30,000 people. But New York City turned Warwick resident Shawnee Moore says there’s more underneath the surface. “It’s a microcosm of the rest of the country,” she says.

Like many majority-white towns in America, Warwick resists meaningful discourse about racism amongst its neighbors and institutions. When Black residents spoke out last summer about their experiences with racism in Warwick schools and with local police, white residents responded with disbelief that racism even exists.

Moore, a retired NYPD Internal Affairs officer and a Black member of the town’s 203 group, says Warwick’s reform discussions were fraught with that denial. “Unfortunately, Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton hasn’t embraced the fact that racism exists in the Town of Warwick,” she says.

Sweeton, Warwick’s chief executive, says there’s no racism in Warwick policing: “The Town of Warwick did that [review] and found no evidence of racial bias by the Warwick Police Department nor any disproportionate policing of any group by any measures.”

The police department hasn’t received any racial bias or excessive force complaints in five years, according to the town’s four-page reform plan. (Arrests may tell another story: despite Black people being only 2 to 3 percent of the population in Warwick, they make up 18 percent of arrests, according to FBI crime data.) But reporting police harassment can be daunting for many, a reality committee members raised with Sweeton.

Even so, residents say Sweeton is avoiding the bigger picture of EO 203: how do communities reckon with the racist history of policing?

“I believe that this was an opportunity to create a dialogue where we can talk about race, [and that] never happened,” says Moore. It isn’t enough for the town to say Black Lives Matter—a performative gesture in her eyes—either. Other Warwick residents seem to agree.

Sweeton says a chief goal moving forward is gauging how the community “values our police and the job they do” through a community survey. The results, he hopes, will help new Warwick residents from other areas—such as those with well-documented police misconduct—view local police as members of the community.

But Moore says this goes beyond gauging the “value” of local policing—it’s about changing the hearts, minds, and actions of the police force. She’s also skeptical of the efficacy of implicit bias training, a popular reform discussed within the 203 committee (despite its dubious efficacy). “I don’t want to wait until one of the cops shoots and kills an immigrant worker or a Black person,” she says.

The reasons behind an unwillingness to address racism head on, according to Moore and fellow 203 committee member Ron Martinez, who is Black, are two-fold. Public officials are hesitant to publicly associate the institutions they helm with a legacy of racism, says Martinez: “Does Chief Thomas come out and say, ‘Yes, we’ve been racist toward Black people here in Warwick?’ That within itself is going to raise a whole bunch of different questions.”

Maintaining that status quo means appeasing a constituency resistant to conversations about race while doing the bare minimum to comply with EO 203, according to Moore. “The majority of Warwick is white, so Sweeton wants to save his voting base and appease the people who will keep him elected because he’s a politician.” Other residents accuse Sweeton of stacking the 203 committee with his allies while not inviting enough people of color to the table (4 out of 10 civilian members were Black). 

But Sweeton says those other five white citizens—from the president of the local chamber of commerce to a representative for local migrant farmworkers—reflect the diversity of Warwick.

“The notion that the panel was comprised of ‘my cronies or supporters’ is ridiculous on the face of it and is in itself a politically motivated statement,” Sweeton says.

Another disappointment among the community concerned one committee member: Angel Maysonet.

The retired NYPD officer’s views, social media activity, and past alleged misconduct history drew public ire. Maysonet, who is Puerto Rican and identifies as a person of color, believes individual racist cops exist, but he doesn’t believe police brutality is a salient threat to Black and brown lives, nor is racist policing a problem in Warwick. In fact, Maysonet says, more white people are killed by police than Black people in America—citing a widely argued but now debunked claim from a retracted study. “If we continue to push the narrative onto our children that police are the enemy and that they are the threat to black and Brown people, we’re never going to get out of this as a nation because it’s not true,” he says. “I pay Warwick taxes, my children all went to Warwick schools, I believe that I have a right to have a voice because I’ve lived on both sides.”

Sweeton provides a defense of diversity of thought for Maysonet’s presence on the committee: “I would ask why does it lead to a more productive discussion to have only one viewpoint represented?”

Read Warwick’s full report here.

City of Newburgh: Who’s Flying the Plane?

The Newburgh Police Department was already in flux when EO 203 was announced. Three months earlier, former Police Chief Doug Solomon was suspended for disobeying an administrative order. That suspension came days after the police killing of Tyrell “Rex” Fincher last year. Solomon later resigned that month.

Arnold “Butch” Amthor, a former Town of Montgomery Police Chief, took over as NPD chief in August after having served as deputy police chief of the department. He says he wasn’t intimidated by the challenge. “I walked into this knowing what I was being put up against as chief; 203 just put another layer on that because the department has been in need of a lot of leadership and improvement,” he says. By his side was Robert McLymore, a Town of Wallkill lieutenant and Newburgh pastor hired by city officials to guide police reform and liaise between the city and the community.

Not everyone was pleased with their leadership styles, or in some cases, their leadership altogether. Ray Harvey, president of the local NAACP chapter and chair of the city’s 203 committee, spent nearly seven months in a public power struggle with Amthor and McLymore. “As the chair, I should have been running the committee from Day One, but it wasn’t set up like that,” says Harvey. He resigned in February for undisclosed personal reasons. He later could not be reached for further comment.

Isaiah Valentine, an organizer for NU-V.O.T.E.R.S. MOVEMENT, says civilians on the committee had little decision-making power. “The three topshots pretty much calling all the shots were the city manager, the chief, and McLymore,” he says. Valentine also resigned from the committee.

Others, such as Councilmember Ramona Monteverde, believe Harvey simply didn’t understand his role. “He got very frustrated and failed to communicate,” she says. That frustration sometimes devolved into intense exchanges between Harvey and other committee members.

Amthor says he allowed Harvey to set agendas, but the chair instead deferred that responsibility to McLymore and himself. McLymore describes what should have been a co-partnership between himself, Amthor, and Harvey: The police chief as the expert on NPD policy, McLymore as a mediator, and Harvey as a delegate on behalf of the committee. “When it becomes, ‘Well I’m in charge,’ ‘No, I’m in charge,’ that’s where the struggle is,” he says.

Some civilians grew frustrated with McLymore and Amthor’s claim to superior police policy expertise. McLymore says the committee needed people with policing prowess—himself and the chief—to guide reform discussions. But some cities, such as Beacon and Kingston, addressed those knowledge gaps among civilians by inviting legal and academic experts to the table. Kingston also avoided top-down leadership, or the mere perception of it, through egalitarian subcommittees.

Councilmember Omari Shakur appointed Luisa Fuentes, who views the subcommittee model as a best practice, as his rep on the committee because she is an attorney. Amthor saw Fuentes’ presence as an attempt to derail the city’s goals by infiltrating their meetings with a power-grab agenda. But Fuentes says she was there to stop what she saw as top-down control by Amthor. “I didn’t want them to control the narrative,” she says. Fuentes eventually stepped away from the committee.

After months of resignations and intense frustrations, the city did complete its report. Then Amthor retired.

“Despite constant obstacles, personal attacks and repeated abuse I was able to accomplish all that was thrown at me,” he told the Times Herald-Record.

The reviews on the city’s 203 process overall are mixed among the committee. But Councilmembers Shakur and Monteverde—whose views couldn’t be more disparate—concur that the city fell short in public engagement. Monteverde blames this on the fast-paced timeline they had to follow and the pandemic, which prevented any in-person town halls. Shakur describes the failure as a matter of life and death for the majority Black and brown people of Newburgh: “Their children are being killed, their children are being falsely imprisoned, their children are being intimidated by a police department where 90 percent [of officers] don’t even live in our city.”

Newburgh’s reform plan acknowledges a deep mistrust of the NPD—citing a long history of police misconduct by the department—and includes a pledge to continue opportunities for the community to share present experiences with the police force.

Read Newburgh’s full report here.

Kingston: A Local Reckoning with Race

Sussman says Kingston’s EO 203 approach is a standout in the mid-Hudson. “Kingston has done the best job in the region that has been reported to me and has taken this process very seriously.”

Kingston’s EO 203 committee, dubbed the “Re-envision Public Safety Task Force,” is meant to reflect the city’s civic engagement and social justice values. The task force’s members include local activists, social-justice-oriented radio broadcasters, and criminal justice and social work scholars.

Lester Strong, executive director of the Peaceful Guardians Project and lead coordinator for the task force, narrowed down a 40-person applicant pool to a diverse group of 10 individuals. Besides inviting public safety experts to the table, the city empowered “non-expert” civilians by organizing them into subcommittees dedicated to researching evidence-based policing. “What we tried to do was to give them a framework to let them then go back and do their homework, which meant reading articles, watching videos, calling people, and doing all sorts of things to get data and the information they needed,” says Strong. 

Before the task force began this work, the city took direction from the greater Kingston community, a rare practice among the localities reviewed by The River. Community members submitted their Kingston policing concerns through the city’s website and Facebook page. Those concerns informed the task force’s four focus areas: use of force and accountability; alternatives to direct police response; recruitment, training, and morale; and community policing.

Kingston’s report recommended a Sequential Intercept Model mapping exercise to better direct social services.

Task force member Beetle Bailey worried that they weren’t the best person to represent the neurodivergent community, despite being a neurodivergent individual themself. “There are lives at stake, people can and are dying,” they say.

Strong provided a personal shoutout of Bailey’s research and final presentation, which focuses on crisis intervention training when interacting with autistic people: “Beetle really jumped into it with a passion. And with that passion, my God, the stuff that they came back with was just unbelievable.”

Another standout feature of Kingston’s EO 203 report: an extensive acknowledgement of how racism pervades American institutions. Strong opens the city’s reform plan with a line about how race is “the principal criterion for a person’s social and economic mobility in America regardless of talent, intellect, fame or wealth.” And each subcommittee’s research and recommendations explicitly describes the disparate treatment of people of color in policing. Task force member Anthony Davis found that people of color made up 42 percent of arrests in Kingston, despite POC making up less than 16 percent of the city’s population.

“It’s clear that systemic racism exists in every facet of American life, and for us not to look at it from the perspective of law enforcement, in our judgment, would not have fulfilled the mandate of the assignment,” says Strong.

Read Kingston’s full report here.

A Pass-Fail Test

Officials across the mid-Hudson pledge that police reform debates will continue beyond April 1. The Governor’s office itself says this should be the case. “It’s not meant to be a one-time-only process,” said Jeremy Shockett, deputy secretary for public safety, during a February panel

Many wanted the Governor to intervene where community members reported incomplete or noncompliance with the executive order. But the Cuomo administration took a hands-off approach. 

“I don’t think it’s for the Governor’s office to wade into localities and choose ‘sides’ because, frankly, I don’t think there are sides,” says Shockett. “We want the process to be fulfilled and what comes to that is going to be a good result, even if it’s not what everybody wants 100 percent.”

Such a stance leaves many skeptical of the Governor’s true intentions for signing the executive order. 

“In reality, Cuomo did it to get us off the streets,” says Fuentes. “If this is really meant to engage the community and have any type of change, he would have created an oversight committee and not made it a box-check order. None of that was put into this. It was a toothless order.”

Beyond executive orders, now is the time for statewide standards for policing through legislative action, according to The Policing Project at New York University’s School of Law. “It makes little sense to have different standards from county to county or city to city,” says Josh Parker, the organization’s senior staff attorney. “The rules for when police may use deadly force or deploy tasers or tear gas should not be any different. New Yorkers need comprehensive policing reform legislation on the state level.”