Village of Pelham police steering committee will meet behind closed doors; here’s what you’ll miss

Village+of+Pelham+police+vehicles+parked+next+to+Town+Hall%2C+which+houses+the+department.

Village of Pelham police vehicles parked next to Town Hall, which houses the department.

The ten-member Village of Pelham Steering Committee on Local Policing will meet in private for at least some sessions because it is not a public body as defined by the state Open Meetings Law.

On this Pelham Mayor Chance Mullen and the New York State Committee on Open Government agree, except for perhaps one point. Mullen and Trustee Ariel Spira-Cohen will serve on the panel, while other trustees will periodically join “to discuss different elements of the village government,” according to a statement by Mullen.

If four or more members of the village board are present, the meeting will constitute a meeting of the village board and must follow the Open Meetings Law. Since it was Mullen’s decision to meet in private, presumably this won’t happen. He could also have decided to hold all the sessions open to the public and press.

“This collaborative working group of residents is not a public body, so not every meeting will be open to the public but, as always, transparency will be prioritized,” Mullen said in an email. “This is a steering committee of private residents who will work with me to identify impacts being experienced locally (some of that conversation needs to be confidential, for the sake of the participants) and develop recommendations that will be delivered to the board for inclusion in the village’s action plan.”

Perhaps most importantly, the issues Mullen highlighted illustrate what residents will miss out on as the village faces the contentious issue of structural racism in the police department. They will not hear firsthand the reasons behind policy changes and other recommendations to the village board, as well as incidents of alleged racism by the village police that may be brought forward by the six civilian members of the panel.

“Some of the committee’s work will include a desk review of various policies to identify issues that need further examination by the board (and the public), and also to identify places where deeper discussion is not necessary, or changes may not be possible,” Mullen said. “To be clear: the existence of this group is not intended to conceal the review but to focus it. The steering committee is working to develop an agenda, identify priorities and determine ways to create productive dialog with the community. All of that information will be released as soon as it’s ready.”

In essence, residents won’t be in the room when it happens.

The steering committee consists of Pelham residents Krystal Howell, Okey Obudulu, Teisa Salmon, Ella Stern, Veronica Stern and Jeff Watkins, as well as the mayor, Spira-Cohen (who is liaison to the police department), Village Administrator Omar Small and Police Chief Jason Pallett.

(O)pen up conversations on race that are typically swept under the rug in our town.”

— Veronica Stern

The committee is the village’s first step in fulfilling Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requiring municipalities develop an action plan to build trust among residents and ensure accountability in local policing. That plan must be approved by the village board by next April.

Cuomo’s executive order as well as a package of legislation Cuomo signed were all responses to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis and protests that followed. Floyd died when Police Officer Derek Chauvin held him down by his pressing knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, while three other officers at the scene face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Organizers of the Pelham Unity rally last month called for defunding of the three police forces in the Town of Pelham as they are currently.

“We wanted the white residents of Pelham to get a glimpse into the black experience and open up conversations on race that are typically swept under the rug in our town,” Veronica Stern, a march organizer, said at the time. She is a member of the Pelham steering committee.

The “Pelham’s Laundry” installation at the Pelham Art Center displayed Facebook posts describing racist incidents that had happened to local residents, including those involving members of the police department. Names were blotted out, and the stories in the posts have yet to be confirmed.

“We have begun to hear, some of us for the first time, stories of differential, racist treatment of persons of color in Pelham at the hands of Pelham police officers, teachers, school administrators and fellow Pelham residents,” the Pelham Democratic Committee said in a letter to all of the town’s government bodies July 2. (Mullen is a Democrat.) Among other problems the Democrats cited were “that Pelham police officers have referred to Pelham youth as thugs; that black and other minority students are disproportionately subject to school residency checks by police… that our black and brown neighbors in Mount Vernon, New Rochelle and the Bronx expect to be targeted by the police in Pelham and consider us a racist town.”

As a first step, the letter called for a public meeting with town, village, school board and police officials “to address first-hand accounts of racial injustice in Pelham.” It also said organizations and the community should set the goal of creating a transparent system for reporting and addressing racist incidents.

“Sunlight is often the best antiseptic,” said Pelham Superintendent Cheryl Champ in announcing the school district’s own plans to bring in a New York University group to help deal with structural racism.