Village of Pelham Mayor Mullen outlines plans for studying police reform

Editor’s note: This letter was provided by Village of Pelham Mayor Chance Mullen.

Dear neighbors,

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I know that many in Pelham are feeling the urgency of this moment in front of us. As a white man, a father, and as Mayor, I have never been more aware of the responsibility I carry, while also aware of my own inadequacies and limitations. Thank you to our many residents who have shared their personal stories with our community over these last few weeks, at rallies and vigils, and on printed pages hanging outside the Pelham Art Center. I know that some regard these stories as attacks on the people and places we all love. But I hope we can all remember that these stories are easier to hear than they are to tell.

I swore an oath to do this job to the best of my ability, and that includes a commitment to creating a more inclusive and equitable Village for everyone who lives here. For those who share that commitment, this is not a crisis, it’s an opportunity — an opportunity that begins now. Governor Cuomo issued an executive order requiring all municipalities with their own police departments to draft an action plan in consultation with community stakeholders, with a goal of building and restoring trust. That action plan must be ratified by the Village Board by no later than April of next year. The Governor’s order was broadly written, recognizing that what is needed in one place will be dramatically different from what is needed in others. Many communities in New York State are going to punt. We all know that. They’ll check the boxes on a few superficial reviews and move on to other priorities. The Village of Pelham is not going to punt on this. We’re better than that. Fortunately, there are six other elected officials in the Village who agree with my assessment.

It is still unclear what an “action plan,” or the process that generates it, will look like. The county is going to provide some guidance on that — hopefully soon — and then the real conversation will begin in earnest. In the meantime, I’ve been given clearance by the board to assemble a steering committee that will include myself, Village Administrator Small, Police Chief Pallett, select members of the Board and different members of the community. We’re going to focus community participation around Pelhamites who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, and I have begun reaching out to some of the folks who’ve spoken at the various gatherings that have been held. I believe that the deepest and most meaningful conversations are ones grounded in personal experience, not interpretations of others’ experiences. I want to preserve that. I also want to make sure this doesn’t become a partisan or ideological exercise. What I’ve seen in our Village in the last few weeks is a desire for reflection that is driven by Democrats, Republicans and people of all political stripes who believe deeply in Pelham and what it can be. I want to make sure we keep that spirit alive. This process should be an opportunity to call people in, not just call people out.

There are two key areas this group will explore. First, we will review the Village’s policies together, including Use of Force, purchasing policies, how the Village handles misconduct complaints (and how to communicate that), the Village budget and what drives it, and any other operational components that are suggested by the committee or recommended by the county and state. I do want to be honest here: This is work we’ve already been doing and I think our policies are very strong, thanks to Chief Pallett’s leadership over the last two years. I also believe that every individual in Village leadership is committed to following those policies. So while there may be changes to make, it’s likely that much of our work will focus on refinement and communicating this information to the public so that others are as confident in our policies as I am.

The second area of focus will likely include more participation from the broader community: We will explore ways to ensure we are promoting a local culture where diversity is celebrated, not just tolerated. It’s important to remember that our local government — our departments, policies, laws, staff, the Village Board — will always be a reflection of the Village itself. That is the blessing and curse of a democracy and it’s particularly true in a small village like Pelham where even elected officials are just volunteers from the community. No policy will ever change that fundamental reality. So what can we do collectively to ensure that no one ever feels excluded or discriminated against in their own hometown? And if they do, how can we make it clear that the incident is an aberration, not a norm? Some have suggested renaming a park or a street. Some have advocated for public art that lifts up the voices of those often unheard by society. When these rallies and vigils are no longer a daily occurrence, what will remain to clearly signify that Pelham is home to all? That is the deeper discussion that I think is being called for, and it’s one that is far more complicated than simply identifying acts of individual racism, or adding bullet points to our policies. That work cannot be done by the Board alone. I hope you’ll all join us and I will keep you updated as our plans come into clearer focus.

I love this Village. I know that you do too. I am proud to live in a community where Pelham’s “dirty laundry” can be displayed in the middle of our downtown, and the institution that sponsored it gains new members. If you asked many of the people sharing their stories why they chose to live in Pelham, they would probably talk about the same things we all talk about: our amazing schools, Cub Scouts, Rec soccer, family history, our quaint downtown, raucous board meetings, our legendary Memorial Day parade, Junior League and Pelham Civics, the time so-and-so showed up at their door with a hot meal, or the heroism shown by their neighbors during this pandemic — even the heroism shown by our police officers. These things are real. We can hold our triumphs and our failures in the same hand, recognizing that all communities are the product of an unplanned past that is filled with both, simultaneously. I encourage everyone in Pelham to embrace this moment with pride, knowing that when we look back at this period years from now, we will see proof that our pride was not misplaced.

Thank you for your time,

Village of Pelham NY