Letter to the Editor: What Happened To Tarrytown’s Police Reform Plans

Now that it has been more than 18 months since the village of Tarrytown submitted its police reform plans to the State of New York, as required by state law pursuant to the death of George Floyd, I and others are looking forward to the Village specifically and permanently following through on the commitments and plans that the board of trustees had earlier discussed, to launch a committee to try to improve community-police relations and in particular to benefit marginalized populations and to welcome and celebrate all members of our local Black community. The purpose of such a committee was not to focus on “total quality improvement.” Instead, the committee had been conceptualized to improve mechanisms and refine strategies by which police systems respond to concerns within marginalized populations of inequitable treatment; or perceptions thereof. Please note the nuances here. I thank the trustees for their earlier plans and commitments in this area and look forward to implementation, and this week I have sent some suggestions for possible formats for that committee to the trustees as a reminder, and in consultation with other community leaders.

The trustees had sent in to Albany a plan that indicated future follow-up action and I and others look forward to those actions soon tangibly emerging and being sustained in nature. I further note that the prior board of trustees decided it did not want a “civilian complaint review board” and therefore was nonetheless still interested in having a broader, non-police managed committee to discuss a range of community-police relations matters, not necessarily specific to incidents, but still possibly serving as a forum for conflict resolution.

Some delays may be understandable during time of pandemic and the last reorganization of the board, but it is time that these dialogues move forward within a formal structure, and not to leave the consideration of sensitive issues, of mutual significance, to pure chance, default, delay, or indirection. Too much is at stake. There are problems at hand and to overcome them, and plan for future needs, there is a clear and obvious call here for trustee-level attention and clear, linear, steady oversight that was prior indicated. It has been a long wait and further delay is not very advisable at this stage as relations and perceptions begin to run aground on some rocky shorelines again.

Folks may reasonably disagree on the severity and depth of some of the concerns at hand, but the simple fact remains, that promises and dialogues were made, and discussions were begun, that no longer appear on agendas. Innocent people’s lives are going to be negatively affected in ways that our community should be mature enough to be able to avoid.  I am not one person that thinks that a department of a municipality can, in of itself, take full responsibility for the entirety of its planning for the quality and structure of how it builds relationships with its community, and do so totally independent of civilian leadership, and I call on the board of trustees to lead in this regard.  

Trustees run for office because they want to manage village government; and management is now further needed by elected officials that is distinct, if yet complementary, to what are the services that our local police department provides, and that engage other community leaders to meet together to identify and respond to difficulties in community relationships back to the department and Village officials. And we need leadership that is able to work within, and in relationship to, nuances.

I appeal to the board to resume its dialogue in these areas and to move in steady and straightforward steps to convene a committee that is representative in particular of marginalized groups who are able to advise the village in a more formal and more detailed ways about what are some of the needs that are being seen in the community whereby there are concerns that the police department, in of itself, may need help to be more fully tooled to meet collaboratively, with a committee to be chaired independently of police department chairpersonship. This was what had been discussed, and it has been a very long wait in coming, and there are members of the community who are starting to pay a price for that inaction. Obviously the board of trustees is responsible for its own actions, and, in my view, also, there should be accountability for consequences of inactions that can be predicted.

Strains between people who are part of marginalized populations here, and with village and police officials, remain. I believe that police officials are not fully able to evaluate the extent of those without added civilian input; and if any of us are pretending that they do not exist, our actions are not serving the long term interests of anyone. This is not to take away anything from other efforts that the department and the police union may have been making to improve community relations, but it is to say, that there may be certain areas that still do need to be worked on through other layers of communication, that the board had earlier stated it would pursue.

And each and every statement I have made here is essentially something that the board already agreed to, as a starting point for planning that committee. I am not making any new statements by this, nor conjuring any new shadows, nor seeking to foment chaos. To the contrary, the discussion of the topic by the board simply was allowed to lapse, – and we now need to turn that ship around.

The village operates under a formal statement by its mayor that Black Lives Matter, and it should continue its work under that governance philosophy, which is not neutral, but is outcomes-focused.  And if the board did not want to go so far as to have a “civilian complaint review committee” structure, then to default out of having any kind of community meeting format whatsoever, would seem to be yanking out a fairly large part of what that state planning process had been moving toward.  One of the reasons the board had said it would not want to proceed with a civilian complaint review committee was that it could look at adopting some other committee format and yet now it has not gone so far as to do that either.

At some point the law of gravity applies; and if we are unable to move ahead with those kinds of commitments, we leave an awful lot of relationships in the community dangling in the cold wind.  And the work of a new committee need not be so nearly broad as the work of the state mandated police reform committee was. It can be locally managed, with a smaller number of topics to be addressed, with more of a consensus process for developing agendas, and with a more careful attention paid to how committee membership is developed and who moderates it. 

However, it needs leadership that is independent of the police department and that has tangible, demonstrable prior experience in improving relationships with marginalized communities in particular – and as a starting, not secondary or incidental, planning priority.  This would make it very different than the earlier police reform committee, which was chaired and led by law enforcement, but if it can focus on a smaller number of topics, perhaps it can turn down the heat a little bit on some areas of sensitivity that don’t always have to come up time and time again like the state process had made us do.

We should be able to do these things if we put our minds to it, and without it becoming unduly hostile. I hope we will be seeing some decisions that there is indeed work that needs to be done, that there are quantifiable needs that need to be met, – and yet if there is not agreement on those basic areas, that at minimum, a process could be developed to do some additional needs assessments first, and again, not from a TQI framework but within the Village-agreed Black Lives Matter framework.

Rob Wingate