Police use of force against citizens is not new in America. But in the past few years, mostly thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, more media attention has been focused on police killing. In cities and neighborhoods, communities are grappling with the hardest questions surrounding the lethal use of force by police: how to prevent it, when it can be justified, who suffers most heavily from it, what it does to the heart and soul of a community.
Whenever a citizen dies at the hands of police, it is cause for community grief and soul-searching. But black Americans are more at risk of being killed by police than any other racial group, and the social toll of police violence is steeper in communities with large numbers of people of color. According to FBI statistics, black people make up 31% of those killed by police despite being just 13% of the population. For unarmed people killed by police, the disparities are stark: Racial minorities make up about 37% of the population, but almost 63% of unarmed victims of police killing.
Black activists and writers have long spoken about the toll that police violence takes on the community, and the fear it inspires in young people. Recently, a team of scientists attempted to measure that toll: In June of 2018, a study published in The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, found that when police kill unarmed black people, the news inflicts measurable psychological harm on black people (but not white people) living in the same state.
The Hudson Valley has not made waves in the national discourse as a place where local tensions are high over police use of force. But up and down the Valley, communities have struggled with the deaths of citizens at the hands of police, and with the long public aftermath of a fatal use of force.
In local newspapers, police use of force is typically covered one incident at a time: a paper might run a short news item on a citizen’s death or injury in an altercation with officers, or a report on the outcome of a wrongful death lawsuit. But occasionally, a reporter will dig deeper into patterns of police use of force and how they are impacting the community. Last April, Chronogram reporter Hillary Harvey wrote a long feature about police killings in the Hudson Valley; her findings make it clear that this is very much a local problem. Harvey writes:
The small cities and towns of the Hudson Valley are not immune to problems of excessive use of force by law enforcement. Some communities are, in certain respects, a window into the national issue. Through conversations sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, and concern around the Trump administration’s support for policing tactics that target immigrants and communities of color, the issue is being pushed to what many hope will be a tipping point.
In the story, Harvey focuses on policing and community protest in Newburgh, where six men were killed by police between 2006 and 2012, and Kingston, where a series of community forums have been held with Mayor Steve Noble and Chief Egidio Tinti to talk about how to make local policing safer and more accountable to citizens.
Newburgh has paid out several settlements in the past few years in response to lawsuits against the police department for use of force. In 2016, the city paid $81,378.44 to the estate of Michael Lembhard, who was shot and killed by police in 2012. A year later, Newburgh paid $225,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the mother of Nathaniel Cobb, who was shot and killed by police in 2007.
Some local forces have made recent reforms in response to citizens’ concerns: Last April, the Kingston Board of Police Commissioners adopted a policy that requires officers to wear and use body cameras.
Another recent local deep dive on policing issues is WAMC bureau chief Allison Dunne’s radio series on community policing, in which she spoke to police chiefs in Kingston and Poughkeepsie about city policy and department philosophy.
Not Just an Urban Issue
While the issue has been more pressing in the more heavily populated parts of our region, police use of force has come under scrutiny in rural areas as well. In 2014, 20-year-old Brandon Rifenburg was shot and injured by an Ulster County sheriff’s deputy after leading police on a dramatic high-speed chase in a stolen car from Marbletown to West Hurley. Deputy David Hughes, who fired the shot, was cleared of all wrongdoing in the incident, but for months, officials refused to release his name to the press:
Authorities have also declined to release information on specific circumstances that led to the shooting.
Robert Miraldi, a media law professor at SUNY New Paltz, said those denials blatantly fly in the face of the Freedom of Information Act and called them “outrageous.”
“All that is just historically public,” said Miraldi. “We’re talking events that led up to the grand jury meeting. It’s public record.”
Miraldi said that releasing the name of the officer allows the public to determine if he or she may have been involved in other incidents.
A more troubling case was that of 31-year-old Joshua Camp, a Middleburgh resident who was thrown from his motorcycle and killed when he fled from an attempted police stop in 2016. As in the Rifenburg case, local officials refused to release the name of the Schoharie County sheriff’s deputy who was involved in the incident for months, despite press inquiries. Deputy Thomas Mudge, who was eventually named in a court filing, was cleared of all wrongdoing in the incident, but the case led to the adoption of a new policy on pursuits by the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Department.
Policing and its impact on the community is a topic that deserves deep digging and sensitive listening. We’re building a newsroom to investigate local Hudson Valley issues with national resonance. We want to cover issues like this in depth, and we hope you’ll be part of the conversation.