After first local calls to defund police, village mayors dismiss need to shrink departments
June 26, 2020
One of the consistent demands at protests directed at police departments nationwide since the killing of George Floyd has been to reduce funding for police to support other programs or to restructure departments to take a new approach to public safety.
Calls for such change have come recently in Pelham, where three different departments work in the town’s 2.5 square miles: the Village of Pelham Police Department, the Village of Pelham Manor Police Department and the Town of Pelham Constables. (The latter law enforcement arm, an organization not well known by many residents, works at town court, enforces judgments, transports prisoners and handles certain traffic duties with a roster of 15 peace officers listed on the Town of Pelham website.)
At the Pelham Unity march June 17, speaker Agapeo Malecela told the crowd one of event-co-sponsor Pelham United’s demands is to defund both Pelham village police departments “as they stand now so that we can invest in other social services.”
In a list of 26 police department reforms the Progressive Women of Pelham published June 14, the political group did not specify defunding but did request “a publicly available police budget including line-by-line items” and that “misconduct settlements be paid from the police budget.”
Jamaal Bowman, winner of the Tuesday Congressional Democratic primary for Pelham’s district, has specifically voiced support for defunding departments.
But the mayors of both the Village of Pelham and Village of Pelham Manor say their departments are neither overfunded nor too large.
Village of Pelham Mayor Chance Mullen said his department is actually understaffed and is already operating with the minimum number of officers on each shift. He said he’d like to have an officer on foot downtown for community policing, but the department doesn’t have the staff for it.
“We know that if we take somebody and put them on that kind of a rotation, then we won’t have someone in their car ready to go to a serious situation like an assault or something that requires more than one person to go to,” Mullen said. “Even if we got rid of five cops, the police department budget would go up, not down. Because we would still have to fill the shifts, and then we would be paying time-and-a half” overtime.
Pelham Manor Mayor Jennifer Lapey said, “We are committed to maintaining and improving public safety through a collaborative approach, and we think that we have an appropriate number of officers.” She said that it’s important to her to ensure that changing the size of the department helps her constituents.
The Pelham Manor Board of Trustees, of which Lapey is a member, issued a press release June 23 following the unity march and PWP statement saying it was “proud to reconfirm” its police department’s commitment to public safety via collaborating with community.
“We’re always willing to revisit staffing levels and we do,” Lapey said. “I can’t say that we have too many police right now. We want to be careful to make sure that any reduction in staffing that we consider is in the best interest of our residents.”
The national average for villages under 10,000 residents is roughly one sworn officer for about 286 residents. The Village of Pelham has 25 sworn officers for around 7,000 people, or one per 280 residents, and the Village of Pelham Manor has 27 officers for about 5,500 residents, approximately 1 for every 204 residents.
A Pelham Examiner December 2018 commentary reported that “Pelham has an annual crime rate of 0.85 violent crimes and 12.25 property crimes per 1,000 residents compared to national rates (as of most recent data) of 3.757 violent crimes and 25.96 property crimes per 1,000 residents.” In other words, the ratio of police to residents is at or above that for villages of similar size, while the rate of crime is well below the national averages. Studies show that more police do not necessarily mean less crime.
Meanwhile, the village’s police budget is $3.9 million, and the manor’s is $4.5 million. However, these numbers don’t include employee benefits and other sometimes uncontrollable parts of the budget that indirectly go to the police. According to Village of Pelham Treasurer Chris Scelza, approximately $5.9 million of the $16 million total budget, or around 37%, funds police services, while Pelham Manor Village Manager John Pierpont said $6 million out of $16.3 million in spending, also about 37%, goes to the department in the manor.
Mullen said that when considering the entire town, including the school district’s spending, Pelham is “a well-resourced community that spends far more money on social services than we do on policing. To be specific, the Village of Pelham spends less than $4 million on our police department annually. Our school budget is $76 million. Unlike city budgets that have millions of dollars they need to spend each year on new equipment, like armored vehicles, tear gas, helmets, etc.—our equipment line in the PD budget is about $25,000, and we’ll be using that money primarily to replace things that break. The last time our PD got new desks, they were donated by people in the community.”
“We don’t hand money over to the police department,” he said. “We are literally spending on things that get broken and trying to manage work shifts at a minimum staffing level.”
“I’m not sure I’ve seen a game plan that addresses the community’s needs as successfully as what we’re doing that’s been called a defunding program,” Lapey said. “That’s not to say it doesn’t exist… We are always happy to review a suggestion or a policy.”
The Town of Pelham is in a unique position as debates about law enforcement resources circulate because it has three units. As such, total police spending in Pelham is higher than it might otherwise would be, according to a study by David Joachim, a Pelham resident and financial investigations editor for Bloomberg News.
When asked about merging police departments, Mullen said, “In terms of merging the villages, do I think we would save money? Yes, of course we would save money. I think the process of doing that is far more complicated than it seems. You’re merging unions. You’re merging leadership.”
Lapey nixed the idea of merging police forces, as she has previous suggestions of an overall merger of the villages and town into a single entity. “I don’t think it nets the gains that would lead us to make a change at this time,” she said. She cited the PMPD’s quick response times as something that would suffer in any merger. “By having separate police houses, we really do keep the response times to a very impressive number.”
Lapey previously disputed Joachim’s analysis on savings coming from merging services, saying, “There are many layers to this issue. His conclusion was not definitive.”
Merging Pelham’s law enforcement departments might be one way to save money for residents of Pelham, but as Mullen put it, such a move would require a “large appetite within the community.”
Beyond questioning the size and cost of police departments, national protests have brought about conversations on accountability, training and hiring.
Progressive Women of Pelham focused on such issues in their release, demanding transparency and accountability, police policy reform and new hiring practices. Specific requests included a civilian commission to investigate complaints against officers, required de-escalation and minimum force in apprehension and diverse hiring. PWP said it made the demands in response to “credible evidence of racial profiling by the villages of Pelham and Pelham Manor police.”
It did not provide that evidence.
In a letter to residents the day after the Pelham Unity march, Village of Pelham Chief Jason Pallett outlined training procedures and transparency policies. “Pelham police officers are trained annually in de-escalation techniques, use of force policies, and we require in-depth reporting and internal investigations when force is used (thankfully it is seldom) by any member of the department,” he wrote. “Additionally, we report all uses of force to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services for transparency and state data collection.”
“One of the things the (Pelham village) board is looking at is implicit bias training on a periodic basis, and that’s one real gap in terms of training,” said Mullen. “Every rookie officer gets it when they’re in the academy, but there’s not a mandate from the county or the state to have that regularly happening. I think regardless of what comes from the county or the state, we’re going to institute that.”
Mullen said there would be a “continuous review of policies,” and he plans to work closely with the county on policy reforms. (Westchester County Executive George Latimer has appointed a task force on police reform.)
The Manor department was described by Lapey as “committed to ongoing training” and “engaged and proactive” in the community. She talked about crisis intervention and de-escalation training and pointed to Chief Jeffrey Carpenter’s 2018 invitation to an FBI national academy program for law enforcement executives, as “training starts with strong leadership at the top of the department.”
“We’ve had a proactive approach, and I think it’s been effective in helping us avoid tragedy, like what happened in Minneapolis,” Lapey said. The department “reviews programs, initiatives, and techniques regularly. There’s a lot of work that remains to be done.”