Next steps? Kingston, NY’s journey to police reform.

It can be easy to think of New York as a Utopia, with agricultural, industrial, and artistic opportunities liveing side by side. But it’s not. Issues of racially motivated police brutality have deeply impacted New York. However, like most politicians, Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed to only realize this last year when he issued Executive Order 203. Issued by Cuomo on June 12th, 2020, the order called upon “each local government entity which has a police agency operating with police officers as defined under 1.20 of the criminal procedure law” to “perform a comprehensive review of current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices.” The purpose of these reviews, conducted with input from community stakeholders and the heads of local police agencies, is to create a plan to improve policing policy so that police can more equitably and safely serve their communities. 

However, with little to no oversight on what these reviews look like, it seems like many of these plans will be practically meaningless. The depth of the reviews largely depend on the demographics and political leanings of the municipality in which they are being conducted. Because NY state is not pushing municipalities to go deeper, there is a significant discrepancy in how comprehensive the reviews are. The Village of Red Hook, for example, recently published their plan for reforms, which received widespread criticisms from the community because it lacked a clear timeline and was unresponsive to the specific requests of community members. These problems have echoed throughout the state in recent months, especially since time is running out; all agencies must submit a plan for reform to the governor’s office by April 1st. 

Kingston, NY is one of the many cities rushing to meet this deadline. 

Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, Kingston joined in on the national protests against police brutality. Over the course of the spring and summer months, several protests were held in Kingston. Notably, Mayor Steve Noble and other city executives attended the protest in solidarity. Mayor Noble even kneeled at the protests before then ordering more state troopers to Kingston, revealing a disconnect between his actions and his beliefs. The city government and police department were called upon to allow more community oversight into policing, to cut some of the funding to the police, and to generally create a police force that properly serves Kingston diverse population.

In response to many of these community concerns, Rise Up Kingston, a Kingston-based grassroots organization “led by those experiencing racism, classism, and gender oppression on a daily basis,” recently began a Defund the Police initiative. 

The initiative has a dual focus, the first of which is to remove police from Kingston schools. Currently, the police department has a contract with the Kingston School District (KSD), and that there are Student Resource Officers (SROs) working in most Kingston schools. Rise Up Kingston has a petition, demanding that the funds currently paying for SROs be redirected to counselling education. Additionally Rise Up demands that all past “complaints of Police Violence and Misconduct that have been reported to the school district” be immediately investigated by the KSD. 

The second demand Rise Up Kingston is larger in focus; encapsulated by the statement “Defund The Police, Invest In Communities,” Rise Up Kingston wants the City of Kingston to reexamine their funding of the entire police department. In a zine Rise Up Kingston published, the organization reviewed the actions of Kingston police in 2019, and determined that 22% of interactions did not and should not have had armed police present. Therefore, Rise Up is demanding that 22% of the police budget go into “a contingency account to allow the community to strategically decide how we should spend out dollars for public safety.” There is a second petition for these demands. 

The actions and demands of Rise Up Kingston are a reflection of and in the interest of the majority of the Kingston community, a fact we see reflected in the Final Report from the City of Kingston Re-Envision Public Safety Task Force (a mouthful shortened to the RPSTF). Created in July of 2020, the task force was created to involve the community more tangibly in the process of police reform. Kingston immediately joined forces with the Peaceful Guardians Project, an organization that “supports youth of the Hudson Valley by co-creating spaces that build stronger trust, social/emotional development, and connection through creative education, leadership development and mentoring.” In partnership with the Peaceful Guardians leader, Lester Strong, the city of Kingston interviewed over 30 applicants before forming the 12 person task force. The group met over the course of 5 months and held two public hearings with the community, before publishing a 200 page report with their recommendations for police reforms. 

It is unsurprising given the fact that the 12 task force members are all involved in the Kingston Community that the recommendations echo the demands of Rise Up Kingston. Among others, the plan recommends that Kingston creates a group of trained mental health professionals to respond to situations involving addiction or mental instability. With regards to schools, the plan does not ask for the removal of officers from schools, but does request that children not be subjected to criminal prosecution for actions that could be seen as “developmentally appropriate adolescent behavior.” However, this language is subjective and unclear, and many of the complaints about SROs have been due to the subjectivity of their position. The report does also want an investigation into the role of SROs in school, but does not specifically say that SROs should be removed. It is only if an agreement cannot be reached, that the plan recommends that SROs be removed from KSD.

The task force is aware that not all of their recommendations will be enacted by the police department this year. However, they hope that their report will be used to create comprehensive reform in the long run; in fact the report includes recommendations for 5 years down the line as well as immediate reforms.

Ultimately, the decisions will come from Kingston lawmakers (specifically from Mayor Steve Noble) and not from the task force or from the community. With an April 1st deadline, Kingston has just one month to decide on what police reforms to enact, so decisions will have to be made soon. And, it is important to acknowledge that Kingston has involved the community more than other municipalities (such as nearby Red Hook). However, the inclusion of the community will be meaningless unless they actually incorporate the community recommendations into the plan they put into place.  

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