Police Reform within Dutchess County

The current condition of the United States has been nothing short of divided since the State of Emergency was announced in March of 2020. With the politicization of mask-wearing and quarantine, and the ever increasing national coronavirus cases, the presidential election has only succeeded in further dividing the country. Rampant chaos of the pandemic and the rise of police brutality have garnered protests and mass movements in an attempt to defund, abolish, or reform police departments.

The issue of police brutality ultimately traces back to the deeply rooted white supremacy and racism that the United States was founded on. The increase of police brutality, which primarily targets Black Americans, has sparked waves of outrage towards the government’s complacency and silence on the matter. There are still people listening to these cries for help and change.

Dutchess County has recently begun a series of listening forums. Members from towns like Tivoli and Red Hook attended a virtual meeting on September 26th to list and voice their concerns towards the local police. These forums have occurred from September 12th until October 3rd in communities such as Beacon, Poughkeepsie, and Rhinebeck (Red Hook and Tivoli were grouped here). They have been created with the purpose of receiving public feedback on how town officials can form a safer environment implemented by their police departments, and how needs from the community can be met. 

The forums are set up as a Zoom call with two moderators to lead the discussion forward, and an ASL interpreter who switches out as different town members express their ideas and concerns. Different from a Q&A, no one answers questions or gives comments towards the feedback. Rather, the officials listen to the concerns being given to them, with the hope that they will come up with viable solutions that best fit their community. The moderators explained that this format was chosen in order to give community members a chance to speak their minds freely in a safe environment. The feedback is also meant to give officials the community’s perspective, which will help them enact change in the near future. 

The Poughkeepsie Forum, which took place on Wednesday, September 23, allowed for this community feedback to become available in the form of spoken testimonials and informal speeches. The majority of the feedback surrounded the following topics of discussion: The Right to Know Act, Police Abuse of minorities, and Police within Schools. 

The Right to Know Act, which was unanimously voted on by Poughkeepsie residents in favor of, aims to deter NYPD abuse and help prevent unnecessary police encounters. Within the forum, one concerned community member addressed the fact that without this act in place, people may have no idea why they’re being questioned, which can lead to unwarranted violence. With the act in place, it ensures that officers are required to receive consent to search one’s vehicle, house, etc. 

The major discussion of Poughkeepsie’s forum surrounded police brutality and the racial profiling of minority groups, specifically black communities and men. Most community members argued that the targeting of people of color needs to be discussed, while others simply showcased their own white privilege by stating that they had never experienced anything negative with the police. This conversation evolved when the topic reached that of police officers within school districts, and how this was harmful, rather than beneficial, to the educational environment. Since there is a large “distrust of police” from predominantly communities of color, placing them within spaces dedicated for teaching does not seem like a viable solution. One community member even stated that “we are not in Nazi Germany” and that “police have no place in schools.” (Members of The Kingston City School District have started a petition to have police removed from schools. You can sign it here.)

A similar discussion occurred within the Town of Rhinebeck, which included both Red Hook and Tivoli. There was a larger number of participants, and most were demanding a sense of transparency and reform of the police departments within their respective communities. The question, “What are your specific ideas for police reform?” was answered by suggesting “reducing the role of police” within these towns. Rather than total defunding or police abolition, many people suggested allowing mental health experts to take the place of police when non-emergency phone calls were made. Mental health experts could offer a peaceful de-escalation of events, which greatly contrast the corrupt methods often seen by the police. In implementing this aid, and normalizing contacting experts, many violent encounters could be avoided in the future. 

Many people also called into question the politicization of the police, specifically the political views of Sheriff Butch Anderson. President Trump expressed his endorsement of Anderson for his re-election campaign, which has caused concern for a few of the community members that attended the meeting. One member even suggested that he should “either renounce his support for the president or resign.” How can a community fully trust its leaders if they are directly affiliated with President Trump, a man who refuses to condemn white supremacy? The endorsement of Sheriff Anderson should be a concern to anyone interested in police abolition or reform, since these very ideas of change are directly opposed by the president. 

The need for transparency was extremely apparent within the forum, since the majority of residents were asking questions about the police department, how it worked, who was in charge, and who was involved. A few questions left unanswered include: What is the budget for police officer training? What is the process to view any misconduct records? How much of the police budget is spent on military style weapon equipment? Residents deserve to know what happens within their community. Since the forums occurred, nothing has been announced to the public.

Law enforcement exists within any society under the idea that it should protect its citizens. They are supposed to be a comforting presence that enables safety within every community. For so long, this narrative has been ingrained into US society – that cops are good, and robbers are bad. But how can good police exist within a system that has been bent into an unfixable state of corruption? This corruption runs deep within the veins of this nation and the culture of white supremacy embedded in the Trump Administration is more prevalent than ever before. With this in mind, can true reform even be plausible if the system has never been just? Can this be done without taking into consideration the millions of black incarcerated lives, overly sentenced for drug charges or petty theft? Without acknowledging the dutiful ignorance towards non-white lives, change (let alone police reform) will be extremely hard to come by. But with little steps in the right direction, through having conversations, the spread of information and empathy, one step is still better than none. 

The forum video links can be found here. 

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