Top police brass in county embrace reform effort

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CLINTON — Three of the top cops in the county spoke about police reform and departmental transparency at a forum hosted by Hamilton College Wednesday night, Nov. 11.

Rome Police Chief Kevin C. Beach, Utica Police Chief Mark Williams and Oneida County Sheriff Robert M. Maciol discussed their agencies and took questions from the audience for about an hour and a half via the tele-conferencing program Zoom. The free seminar was aired on WPNY and online, hosted by the College/Community Partnership for Racial Justice Reform.

“We are not opposed to reform. Actually, we embrace it,” said Chief Beach. “We spend a significant amount of our time seeking ways to make policing better.”

The forum was held largely in response to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s June 12 executive order requesting that all police agencies across the state form a community advisory board to review and reform departmental policies and procedures. The executive order was issued in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, for which four police officers were charged.

Beach said his department’s 13-member committee has already held five meetings since August. The committee is made up of religious, community and business leaders, and Beach said they are conducting an “exhaustive” review of the department.

Beach said he hopes “the public will have a better understanding of our department”, and the department will have a better understanding of what the public expects.

Utica Police Chief Williams said his committee has held seven meetings so far.

“Like all police departments, we’re trying to strive for trust and legitimacy,” Williams said, noting that “transparency” will help achieve that goal. Williams said that he has learned that a lot of people simply don’t know what the police department does.

“We have to do a better job of explaining what we do to the public,” Williams stated.

The police leaders discussed recent diversity training and their efforts to hire a more diverse police force, while facing the reality that police hiring is down around the country. They spoke of their efforts to increase relationships with the community, such as through Rome’s Community Impact Unit and the Sheriff’s Community Affairs Unit.

Both Chief Williams and Sheriff Maciol touted the success of their body camera programs and how that has helped hold officers accountable.

“We’re definitely very happy to have body cameras,” said Maciol, calling the cameras, “one of the single most
expensive ventures we have gone down...and one of the most valuable and important tools.”

Maciol noted that his department has recently assigned body cameras to corrections officers inside the county jail. The cameras were originally only used by patrol deputies.

Beach acknowledged that the Rome Police have not yet adopted body cameras due to the cost, but he did note that the department’s Office of Professional Conduct has led to “a lot more accountability,” and has seen a 65% decrease in complaints of police misconduct over the past several years.

When asked by the public about cost effective steps the departments can’t take, Maciol said, “It doesn’t cost us anything to be human to one another.”

All three police leaders agreed in leading by example and providing strong leadership to their officers. They also agreed on holding their officers accountable for any inappropriate actions or honest mistakes.

“We’re very big on taking responsibility and accountability for your actions, both on and off duty,” said Beach.

“We’re not going to tolerate bad behavior here at the police department.”

On the topic of police reforms, Maciol noted that reforms “don’t always fit every single community.” He said he wished more active police officers had been consulted in recent reforms, such as the controversial bail reforms.

Maciol also expressed his disappointment in how budget cuts in other agencies, such as mental health and social services, has put more pressure on police agencies.

“Nothing would make us more happy than if our people never had to go on a mental health call again,” Maciol stated.

The seminar was hosted by the College/Community Partnership for Racial Justice Reform, which includes Hamilton College, Mohawk Valley Community College, Herkimer College, Pratt MWP, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Utica College. The seminar was moderated by former Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler and former State Police recruiter, and current Utica College professor, Musco Millner.

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