By Karen Carr Keefe
The Town Board approved a Police Reform Action Plan for the Grand Island Police Department in a public hearing during its regular Monday night meeting.
The approval came after a series of meetings in which the public provided input that has been incorporated into the plan. Key among those reforms is the inclusion of a citizens advisory board, suggested by Grand Island resident David Pratt.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Supervisor John Whitney said about an advisory board. Whitney, as police commissioner for the town police department, was pleased by the input from a committee that included Pratt, Celia Spacone and Stephanie Cowart and a number of others. The supervisor said he looks forward to getting the citizens advisory board formed, having a meeting and reviewing the reform plan.
“As situations arise, as things change, they will be addressed,” he said.
“I want this to be a living and breathing document. I don’t want it to be something that we did once, shove it on shelf and completely forget about it,” Whitney said.
The reform plan also includes actions taken and recommendations on training, on procedural justice and bias, accountability and transparency, the proper use of force and methods to deescalate encounters between the public and the police.
The plan is in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate of June 2020 calling for police reform across the state in the wake of the police-involved death of George Floyd last May 25 in Minneapolis. Floyd’s manner of death prompted national protests over police policies and actions especially with regard to minorities. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is currently on trial on charges of murdering Floyd by placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9-1/2 minutes.
At the Town Board hearing, speakers were Pratt and Spacone, both psychologists, and Cowart, who spearheaded citizen meetings leading up to the plan.
Pratt praised the work done on police reform and the inclusion of a citizen advisory board.
“I believe a community advisory board will greatly enhance the transparency and collaboration that we need in order to build confidence and trust between the Grand Island Police Department and the citizens they serve on Grand Island,” he said.
Pratt said the advisory board, if properly done, will help policies and procedures that will bring long-term benefits to the town. “However, I want to highlight some possible omissions in your draft.”
He said he would like to see a public announcement regarding the recruitment process for the advisory board. He wants the selection of members “to be based on competence and merit, and not on political affiliation or influence in town affairs.”
Pratt urged broad representation of Grand Island stakeholders on the board. He said there should be minority representation on the board, as well as representation from the religious and spiritual community, mental health professionals, nonprofit social service agencies, the for-profit business community, as well as a Grand Island citizen-at-large.
He also wants the town to guarantee the board will have full access to police records, including policies and procedures, hiring decisions, training, citizen complaints and the disciplinary process.
Pratt recommended no fewer than four quarterly meetings per year between the advisory board and police administration.
Whitney asked Pratt to submit his recommendations in writing. “I find them very helpful and we do want to incorporate them.”
Spacone said the draft report on police reform is a good start. She urged that the police force, itself, include ethnic and racial diversity and incorporate use of dash board and body cameras.
Cowart said concerns over community police reform “were brought about due to the Black Lives Matter movement at a critical time to address systemic racism and to avoid crisis situations.”
“Right now, Black Lives Matter, as well as American democracy, are on trial, and the whole world is watching. Reform is of paramount importance. Grand Island must seriously address and prevent the mistreatment and killing of Black, brown, Asians, Pacific Islanders, indigenous and poor people by those who are sworn to protect and serve them,” Cowart said. She also said she’d like to see more coordination between the five police agencies that serve Grand Island.
The GIPD is comprised of 23 part-time police officers, all of whom have additional experience as full-time police officers or retired full-time police officers, except for two officers who are otherwise certified as part-time police officers.
In other business, the board heard from residents who object to the Grand Island School District claiming an exemption to the six-month moratorium on new solar farms in the town. Lawyers advised the district is entitled to the exemption, but Town Board members urged the district not pursue that option until the town has drawn up a new law on solar facilities by July 18.
Assistant Superintendent Rubie Harris spoke on behalf of the school district, saying it would bring revenue to the district and provide training for students on solar power.
Town Board members urged district members to attend town meetings on the moratorium and shape their proposal accordingly.