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By Karen Carr Keefe
The Grand Island Police Department is finalizing with town attorneys a draft of its Police Reform Action Plan and will hold another public comment session before submitting the plan to the state by the April 1 deadline.
The plan is in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate issued in June 2020 calling for police reform across the state in the wake of the police-involved death of a Black man, George Floyd, last May in Minneapolis and the resulting national protests over police policies and actions, especially with regard to minorities.
Since June, the Grand Island police officers in charge, Town Board members and Town Supervisor John Whitney – who is town police commissioner – have been meeting with residents to get public input on how the local police force could be made more responsive to the needs of all residents, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Whitney said Stephanie Cowart headed up the ad hoc group of mostly women Island residents who sought input on police reform. Public input will be incorporated into the plan. When the draft reform plan is complete, it will be posted on the town’s website and Facebook page, then another public hearing will be held to gather more public input.
Several Zoom meetings already have been held on the topic, the latest taking place March 8.
Cuomo’s executive order – the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative – requires all New York police agencies to “develop a plan that reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input.”
Those agencies that don’t submit a plan risk losing state funding. Five police agencies respond to Grand Island calls: The Erie County Sheriff’s Office is the primary police force on Grand Island. “They are here 24/7. The Grand Island police force acts as a backup to them,” Whitney explained. They respond to 40% of the calls for service on the Island, in conjunction with the four other police agencies active on Grand Island.
The GIPD consists of about 24 part-time officers, all of whom are active or retired officers in other police agencies. Robert Rine is police officer in charge and Thomas Franz is assistant officer in charge. Other police agencies present on Grand Island are the New York State Police, both on the Island as a whole and the division that is active solely on the Thruway, as well as the New York State Park Police and the U.S. Border Patrol.
“My directive to my officers is to be a community police force and be a presence in the community.” He told them to make policing as non-adversarial as possible.
Whitney said when he became police commissioner, he told the officers, “I want you guys to be the police that, when you see some kids out playing basketball in the street, stop, talk to them, get out of the car, shoot a hoop with them. You see people walking through their neighborhood, stop, say, ‘Hi, how’s everything going?’ Be that type of police force. I want our police force to be user-friendly.”
March 8 hearing for public input
In the March 8 public hearing, Officer in Charge Rine outlined some of the reforms that already have been implemented by the GIPD in response to the death of George Floyd and others nationally who have died in police custody.
“Mr. Whitney gave us marching orders … when he took over, to be more involved in the community. He wanted more patrolling within the neighborhoods,” Rine said.
“Last year, the part-time police department recorded almost 67,000 patrol miles. That’s because we’re in the neighborhoods a lot more than we ever were,” he said.
“We do make arrests when we have to. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Rine said that he and Tom Franz have made reforms to reflect what’s going on in everyday life.
“With the advent of Mr. Floyd and other people who have been killed we put into our policy and procedure that you can’t use choke holds … anything that restricts the airway.” This includes positional asphyxiation. Rine said if any of the officers see any other officer from any department who is not abiding by the law, they have a duty and a responsibility to act, to intervene to stop anything that would endanger the subject.
“We also added core values to our policy and procedure – integrity, professionalism, fairness and impartiality. It doesn’t matter where you came from; if you have a lot of money or a little money; if you’re Black, White, Hispanic. It doesn’t matter if you’re pink or purple – you’re going to be treated fairly,” Rine said. “And our officers always have – but now it’s in writing, so they can be held accountable.”
Rine said there is now a series of mandatory online training courses to go along with the executive order. The first one was diversity; another was on de-escalation. Another written procedure will eliminate “the pretext stop,” in which an officer could stop a motorist on the pretext of a dirty license plate, for example, then escalate the encounter to initiate a search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment. “Well, it’s in writing now – you can’t do it. The guys in the Grand Island P.D. never did do it, but now it’s in writing.”
Rine also stressed the use of reasonable force. “We have accountability to the Department of Criminal Justice Services. If we just brandish pepper spray – pull it out and threaten to use it, that’s the use of force, and we have to report that.”
Resident Celia Spacone, former executive director of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, asked if specific training is being given so officers know how to avoid maneuvers that would unwittingly endanger the breathing of a person in custody. Assistant Officer in Charge Tom Franz said the seminars specifically deal with the proper and safe ways to avoid such circumstances. He said there is a minimum of five hours per month in training sessions for officers.
Victoria Ross of Riverside-Salem Church on Grand Island stressed the importance of including social workers and mental health counselors in community policing situations that involve people with mental health issues. She said their years of specialized training equips them well to help de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.
“A central principal of community policing is collaboration with the community,” commented resident David Pratt. He suggested a community advisory board as part of the administrative hierarchy to ensure a better police force. “A community board could have discussions like we’re having here now.”