Village of Pelham police reform panel calls for body cams, reveals off-duty officers no longer do residency checks
'The anecdotes shared by residents recently indicate that some in our community may have experiences that never get escalated to village management.'
January 2, 2021
The Village of Pelham’s steering committee on police reform called for officers to wear body cameras and revealed the Pelham school district will no longer hire off-duty members of the force to conduct residency investigations.
In a 44-page report with 48 recommendations, the Village of Pelham Steering Committee on Police and Inclusion also recommended officers on calls warn residents of the new state law that penalizes targeting minorities with unwarranted 911 reports and that the department consider hiring from a list of county applicants rather the local list. The report also addresses the issues of “defunding the police” and the possible impacts of merging the villages of Pelham and Pelham Manor on perceptions of police behavior.
“This report is not intended to be conclusive,” said the document. “It is intended to provoke productive dialogue within the community, among members of the village board, and among all those who serve in a leadership capacity in our town. It reflects our desire for residents to come together in recognition of the fact that we all want the same things: safety for ourselves and our families, respect from those around us and to thrive in this wonderful place we all call home.”
Mayor Chance Mullen convened the steering committee, which included six residents and four village officials, in the summer, and it met 18 times in private before issuing the report. That step followed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order in June requiring all municipalities to review their police departments because Cuomo concluded “that urgent and immediate action is needed to eliminate racial inequities in policing.” The order was in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the protests that followed.
The village board is required to approve a plan by April that, among other things, will “reduce any racial disparities in policing,” said the executive order.
The steering committee report and recommendations are phase one of Mullen’s effort to develop the mandated plan. Phase two will include a series of community forums tentatively set for January. The second planning meeting for those forums is Jan. 11 at 7:30 p.m., with all residents welcome. The process will conclude with the board of trustees considering the recommendations and resident comments and approving the plan to send to Albany.
The steering committee recommended Pelham police officers wear body cameras because “(m)any incidents involving the police have the potential to create questions of objectivity, and body-worn cameras have been shown to promote accountability, transparency and legitimacy.” The department tested Axon 3 body cameras for 30 days from mid-September to mid-October and this trial “yielded positive results.”
According to the report, the cost for 26 cameras and all the various equipment can be spread out over a five-year period, with the year one expense of about $49,000 and $16,944 for years two through five. “Year one is higher due to the initial hardware costs, but Axon can also break out hardware costs over the five-year period to mitigate the budgetary impact in the first year,” the committee wrote, saying this is important due to the “current fiscal environment we are in due to Covid-19.” The panel stated two goals for adoption of the technology: Commit to purchasing cameras by the end of fiscal year 2021-22 and draft a policy which ensures equipment activation during all encounters.
School Residency Investigations
School residency investigations are conducted by the Pelham Union Free School District to ensure that nonresidents are not attending Pelham schools. Until this year, the district hired off-duty police officers to do the inquiries, but it now contracts with BOCES for the service, according to the village steering committee report. (The school district did not announce the policy change. “This year, the district decided to use the BOCES service exclusively as it is consistent with the advice of legal counsel that the district not use local police for these services,” said a school district spokesman.)
The steering committee met with Pelham Superintendent Cheryl Champ to discuss the district’s racial equity audit conducted with the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. The residency investigations were not included in the center’s original work, but the village report said Champ agreed it should be added to the Metro Center’s efforts.
Though the probes are the school district’s responsibility, the investigations were studied by the village steering committee because, in the past, Village of Pelham officers have been among those hired by the district for the work. “This presents a severe reputational risk, since the (Pelham Police Department) is likely to be held responsible for an investigator’s behavior, even if the investigation is managed by an outside entity,” the steering committee concluded.
In the past five years, 124 investigations have been conducted, with 35 families determined to be non-residents, meaning 72% of all investigations involved subjecting actual residents to private investigation, the report said.
In spite of the district’s decision to no longer use police officers, the report criticized the investigations as driving racism.
“Since private investigators often operate with less accountability—and since the bulk of these investigations involve residents who are fully entitled to attend our schools—we must ensure that our tax dollars are not used to harm our neighbors or create an inequitable experience in our community,” the committee said. It encouraged the school board to “push back on the local narratives often driving this issue, including the oft-used argument that children in low income families are trying to ‘sneak into the school district.’ This is a narrative that perpetuates racism and racist stereotypes. There is nothing sneaky about finding an affordable home in a community with good schools. If there is, nearly every parent in Pelham is guilty of the same thing.”
Misconduct Reporting and Internal Affairs
The recommendations from the committee regarding reports of misconduct mainly consisted of making the channels in which residents can report misconduct clearer and more available.
“The recommendation was that residents should continue being able to report misconduct to any member of management and/or any trustee, but we should communicate those options more diligently,” said Mullen. “Additionally, it was recommended that one trustee serve specifically as an ‘auditor’ of misconduct complaints if they come in (from any department), since the board cannot fulfill its oversight responsibilities if they are not routinely made aware of complaints. The final recommendation was that the village should measure and share annual metrics related to misconduct complaints by adding this information to the (police department) annual activity report.”
According to the report, “In the past two years, there have been three personnel complaints, none of which involved allegations of excessive force or a breach of an individual’s civil rights. The anecdotes shared by residents recently indicate that some in our community may have experiences that never get escalated to village management. To ensure that residents have safe channels for reporting misconduct and to ensure that village leadership is able to investigate said allegations, this gap must be addressed.”
Race-Based 911 Calls And Demographic Data
A new state law signed on June 12 makes it a civil rights violation to call 911 to report an incident involving a member of a minority or certain other classes of citizens without reason to suspect a crime or an imminent threat.
While the steering committee said it supported the reform “as a protection for both residents of color and police officers,” it added it “has concerns about the enforceability of this new law.” Still, in an effort to support its implementation, the panel recommended police answering calls be proactive when residents report issues unlikely to be related to an actual threat and remind callers of the penalties included in the new law.
In 2019, the department received 5,849 calls for service, up from 4,789 in the prior year. More than 230 of those phone calls were to report “suspicious” people or vehicles. The report said that Pelham police officers have received and will continue to receive training on treating all individuals equally in police contact, but it is still possible that “even if our local officers operate with integrity, they may still be involved in creating an experience for people of color that does not align with the experience of most white residents and visitors.”
The committee asked that the following be included in the department’s activity reports: Demographic data related to arrests and violations issued, subjects of 911 calls, suspicious persons and suspicious vehicles reported, new hires, promotions and special assignments, and the total number, nature and resolution of misconduct complaints.
Impact of Two Villages
The committee wrote the decentralized nature of Pelham policing created by the town’s two-village structure creates “potential gaps in accountability in regards to misconduct.”
The mix of shared and separate services along with the duplicative structure in Pelham, according to the report, makes it “difficult for some residents to know who is responsible for which employees, and where misconduct complaints should be directed. There are also reputational risks that the village board of trustees must keep in mind, since inequitable treatment perpetuated by one jurisdiction is likely to create a negative perception of all local jurisdictions.”
“Consolidating services by merging both villages would help to bridge that divide while ensuring a more efficient way to provide core services to Pelham residents at a discounted price,” the steering committee said. “There’s no reason to believe the quality of services would be diminished.” Even so, the panel said it was not recommending consolidation of the villages, noting that process should be led by Pelham Manor residents because of the perception their taxes would rise after operations were combined.
The committee noted other effects of the separation of the two villages, including the existence of two police departments making the town feel “over-policed” and social divisions being created within the school district and community that reinforce “cultural and class narratives that are inaccurate and serve no practical purpose.”
Hiring and Demographic Data
From the report, the following chart shows the demographics of Pelham and the sworn members of the police department in 2019 by race/ethnicity:
Currently, the Village of Pelham has several female-identifying crossing guards, but no employed female police officers. The steering committee agreed that a “more diverse workforce, which more accurately reflects the diversity of the service population, is beneficial to the department’s operations and reputation” but warned that civil service laws and regulations make it difficult to bring change.
One variable the village can control is whether to take candidates from a local civil service list or a countywide list. Pelham currently uses the local list. In what seemed a mixed message, the committee defended that approach while leaving open the door to a possible switch to the list of county candidates, which might be more diverse.
The report said “currently half of all Pelham police officers live in the Village of Pelham, and all but one graduated from Pelham Memorial High School.” Hiring locally is a significant benefit to the community since “resident officers often have a personal stake in the success of the community and are more likely to know the population personally.”
Nonetheless, the report recommended the village “consider choosing some candidates from the county list.” The panel also called for establishment of a female police officer position and a Spanish-speaking police officer position, with a goal of hiring two in each of those posts. The report did not say how the village would fill these positions while following the civil service rules.
Department Budget and ‘Defunding the Police’
The report dealt with the calls to “defund the police” that arose in the protests in the spring and fall by providing a bit of an economics lesson. It concluded that crime is lower in communities with higher median incomes like Pelham, and because of the tax cuts those residents have received, funds are directed to nonprofits, local culture, parks, recreation and schools—not policing. These same tax cuts come about, the report said, because of funding reductions that impact lower-income communities.
“In Minneapolis, which recently committed to ‘defunding’ its police department and replacing it with a new system of law enforcement (which may end up being closer to the minimum-sized institutions seen in places like Pelham), the ratio of school spending to police spending is approximately 3:1,” the steering committee wrote. “In the town of Pelham, the ratio of school spending (townwide) to police spending (townwide) is almost 10:1.”
“Ultimately, our goal is to ensure the equitable treatment of residents and visitors in Pelham, which is not necessarily an issue related to funding.”
The report cautioned reducing the number of active officers may cause spending to increase, not decrease, since a lower overall headcount could drive up overtime expenses. The department “is minimally staffed to cover call volume and ensure a safe and efficient response to local emergencies,” it said.