Viper hits sour note with Thomas Street residents

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An officer of the Rome Chapter NAACP reported at a Common Council meeting Wednesday that the Rome Police Viper armored surveillance vehicle hit a sour note with Thomas Street residents and resources were unavailable at the Justice Building to file a complaint.

Felicia James-Williams, 1st vice-president of the NAACP, stated that she owns a building on Thomas Street, and that on Aug. 31, she was notified that the Rome Police Viper was parked in front of that building. James-Williams said she went to the Justice Building on North James Street and explained her concerns to the desk officer, Patrolman Hollie Silverman.

“I asked why the Viper was parked in front of my building, and she explained to me there were concerns in that area,” James-Williams explained. “I asked if it could be moved, and she said I had to speak with the sergeant, and he wouldn’t be in until 8 a.m. on Sept. 1. I said, ‘I would like it moved today, is there anyone to speak to now?,’ and she said I’d need to speak with the sergeant who would be in on Sept. 1.”

She continued, “I requested a complaint form, and she (the officer) said she didn’t have one. After having identified myself as the vice-president of the NAACP, I was then referred to Lt. (John) Reilly and I explained to him my concerns with the Viper.”

James-Williams further explained that Lt. Reilly had told her he was aware that the Viper was located in the neighborhood, but he didn’t know why.

“He agreed that families have felt uncomfortable with the Viper in front of their home,” she said. “He said someone would be in contact with me, and Lt. Reilly contacted me and said it was moved down the block.”

On her way out of the Justice Building after speaking with Lt. Reilly, James-Williams said she again requested a complaint form and she was told police “don’t have them out,” and that the officer “didn’t say they were on the Rome Police website.”

“Were we mistaken in the assumption that complaint forms would be available to file easily and conveniently?” James-Williams asked the council. “Every citizen should be able to fill one out conveniently, it should not be selective. We would also like to know if we can have an update on the status of body cams (cameras) for Rome PD.”

During councilor comments, Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers said she understands the concerns and that some people may feel “intimidated” by having the Viper parked near their home, “But I will tell you from experience” in my own ward, “when the Viper shows up, it’s because a resident has requested it.”

Rogers said, “If someone is having a problem that needs to be dealt with, and we’re moving it (the Viper) out of area where it’s necessary, we may end up not addressing the problem of why it’s there. But you should be able to file a complaint if you have concerns.”

Fifth Ward Councilor Frank R. Anderson thanked James-Williams for her comments and encouraged all speakers, on any topic, to come before the council, further stating he was concerned about the inability to file a complaint, especially being a member of the Diversity Committee.

“Ironically tonight if you go on the (Rome Police) website, there is a box for citizen complaints, so I know it’s being addressed. But I don’t know if they’re there yet” as far as having forms available at the police station, said Anderson.

“That is something I would defer to the Public Safety Committee,” he said. “We want to make this a smooth process.”

First Ward Councilor John M. Sparace, who also sits on the Public Safety Committee, said the inability for James-Williams to receive a complaint form “alarms me. I will talk to the chief (Kevin C. Beach) — there should be forms there.”

Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli said, “The fact you couldn’t file a complaint at the police station is concerning. I know everything is online, but you should have access for those with no computers or who walk in off the street. This was addressed in the city’s police reform, and to hear it’s not happening, is concerning.”

When reached on Friday for a response, Police Chief Kevin C. Beach said the issue at the front desk was a “misunderstanding” between a routine police “complaint” and the more specific “personnel complaint”.

A complaint or criminal complaint is when someone from the public wants to report a crime or offense, Beach said. The department does not hand out forms for the civilian to fill out. The civilian is instead interviewed by a patrol officer.

A personnel complaint is when someone from the public wants to report a problem with a police officer or someone from the department. Beach said they do have forms for personnel complaints and the front desk officer can print them. The personnel complaint form is also available on the department’s website.

“The officer at the front desk believed that she was referring to a complaint form involving where the Viper was parked,” Beach explained. “There was a misunderstanding.”

Beach said the officer thought James-Williams wanted to make a criminal complaint about the Viper. He said James-Williams did not specify that she wanted to make a personnel complaint.

“She didn’t make that fact known to the officer,” Beach stated. There was added confusion, he said, because personnel complaints are made against police officers, not police vehicles.

Beach said the officer at the desk did not believe that moving the Viper was an emergency, which is why she suggested waiting a day for the sergeant to return to duty.

“Our sergeant is the person who moves that vehicle. There are only a certain number of people who are authorized to drive that vehicle,” Beach explained.

“The Viper has been deployed hundreds of times in different parts of the city,” the chief said. “The areas we place it are based on requests we get from people in the area or from councilors.”

Beach said the Viper has been placed on Madison, William and Thomas streets recently. He said it was parked in the 400 block of W. Thomas St. because of specific requests from people living in that area concerned about suspicious activity.

When he learned about the dispute at the front desk, Beach said he emailed James-Williams on Sept. 1 and “I explained to her it was a misunderstanding.” Beach said he has also since spoken to Sparace.

At the Common Council meeting, Sparace explained that the Public Safety Committee met Tuesday along with Chief Beach and Fire Chief Thomas Iacovissi.

“We currently have four cameras in trial and we have them for a 30-day period,” said Sparace. “The software is being installed by Axon, and the watch commanders and officers are being trained to use them. At this point we’ve put in for grants, and hopefully when we see the (city) budget, there will be something in there pertaining to body cameras.”

Seventh Ward Councilor A. Robert Tracy said Chief Beach, “made it clear that body cameras will be part of department logistics no matter how they’re paid for — but the police force will have body cameras in the very near future.”

Sparace also reiterated his support for Ordinance 9473, authorizing the city to open a capital account to purchase a customized pumper fire truck for $647,398.58. The ordinance was later unanimously approved by the council.

Also on the agenda:

• Councilor Rogers asked that Resolution 69, authorizing an appointment to the Board of Assessment Review, recommended by City Assessor Joseph Surace, be tabled because Surace was not present to answer questions. The resolution was unanimously tabled.

• Resolution 70 authorizing the city to execute a five-year inter municipal agreement with Oneida County for shared equipment and services was unanimously approved.

• Resolution 71 authorizing the mayor to enter into an agreement with First Presbyterian Church on West Court Street for use of the parking lots at the Justice Building relative to employee parking was unanimously approved, with Councilor Tracy recusing himself from the vote because he sits on the church board.

• Resolution 72 designating the Common Council as the lead agency for the state Environmental Quality Review for the zoning change related to the new Heritage District-Erie Canal was unanimously approved.

Ordinances

• Ordinance 9469 authorizing the issuance of $1,386,074 in additional serial bonds to finance the cost of the Street Lighting Replacement projects throughout the city was unanimously approved. Councilor Anderson said $3.3 million was bonded for the project in 2020, but as a result of inventory, they found that the total cost would be more than $4 million. He said the new lighting projects would save the city about $425,000 per year in costs.

• Ordinance 9470 amending Chapter 2, Article V, Section 2-379 of the Rome Code of Ordinances to correspond with General Municipal Law was unanimously approved.

• Ordinance 9471 authorizing Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo to enter into a rehabilitation agreement and approving the sale of a city-owned parcel at 502-04 Wellesley Road for $8,100 was unanimously approved.

• Ordinance 9472 authorizing the acquisition of real property related to the public right-of-way for the Mohawk River Trail Phase 2 Project for $43,600 was unanimously approved.

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