Marc Pessin reports on the obstacles to police reform in Rockland County, New York.
Activists in Rockland, one of the smallest counties in New York State, joined the groundswell of protests following the killing of George Floyd to demand defunding, transforming, and even abolishing policing. These calls are now becoming the language of ordinary people, not just the left.
Governor Cuomo was not unaware of all this, nor was the rest of the ruling class in New York State. In June, Cuomo and the state legislature signed highly publicized police reform bills. The governor then issued Executive Order 203 calling on all local governments that have police departments to: “perform a comprehensive review of current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, and develop a plan … to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”
Under the order, police departments must present a plan to reform themselves by April 1, 2021 or they will lose state funding. This should be done from the bottom up; transparent with announcements as well as invitations for public participation. Upon issuing Executive Order 203, Cuomo stated publicly that there was no longer any need to protest. This revealed the ruling class’s thinly veiled intent to co-opt activism and place activists on committees which would render them powerless, leading nowhere in the end.
Cuomo considers himself a progressive. His approach to police reform is a 137-page booklet. His hands-off approach means that reform has been left to local law enforcement agencies instead of having a cohesive statewide plan. This raises many questions about his interest or ability to effect any real change. Rockland, like the rest of New York State, is experiencing economic decline with a recession looming. A hiring freeze and property tax increase have been proposed for 2021 in Rockland. Due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, income inequality is sharply obvious as food lines stretch for blocks in many neighborhoods. Many people have lost their jobs and are not able to pay the next month’s rent or mortgage. Simultaneously, the wealthy are benefiting from incentives and tax breaks and are enjoying second homes and expensive learning pods for their children. Rather than conceding to police reform, these conditions will only lead to more of a violent police presence in order to counter any resistance from the people. Police reform controlled by the police, the District Attorney (DA), and the local legislatures will be superficial at best, or reactionary at worst.
Police cannot police themselves. In Rockland, there have been challenges with police accountability reforms from the outset. The DA and sheriff began their internal review by handpicking people to be on their committees. The undemocratic nature of the process is compounded by the role of the sheriff, who was recently called out for racist posts on his Facebook page. The sheriff’s comments attracted white supremacist supporters, including one calling for a reinstatement of “public hangings.” This incited outrage, demonstrations, and continuous calls for the sheriff’s resignation. Incomprehensibly, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, as well as the local Democratic Committee refused to call for the sheriff’s resignation. Not surprisingly, many people on the sheriff’s committee are pro-police, with many cherry-picked by the NAACP. This partnership has led to the community’s lack of trust in both police and the NAACP.
Just like the sheriff and the police, the DA cannot reform itself either. There is a symbiotic relationship between the police and DA. The DA depends on the police for prosecutions, and he has their back when they come under scrutiny. Additionally, this particular DA joined the police chiefs and sheriff in calling for an end to reforms of cash bail and modification of a bill calling for exculpatory evidence to be shared with defendants in a timely manner. (Exculpatory evidence is evidence that would likely exonerate a person who is charged with a crime.)
While many of the people selected for the review committee genuinely want to see change, some are handicapped by the fact that they belong to non-profits whose funding depends on the county. Belonging to a non-profit or 501c3 requires that your organization takes no position publicly for or against a candidate and furthermore, you are answerable to a county executive who controls funding for your organization. Others had to negotiate their way onto a committee. Most importantly, there has been a lack of transparency in the whole selection process with secret selections made and no public announcements of any process for selection or of thef time or place where the committees will meet.
Some community members are pushing back. A group of representatives from progressive organizations recently met to create the People’s Panel of Policing in Rockland County, in the spirit of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Spearheaded by African American progressive leaders, the group pledged to create a plan for community safety. As a counter to the closed-door committees created by the DA and sheriff, they agreed to add anyone seriously interested in police reform to act democratically and transparently and to keep the public informed. After research, debate, discussion and investigation, a plan to reform the police, including an alternative to violent and punitive policing, will be presented to the county legislature.
Rockland seems to be emblematic of the attempts to reform policing across the country. The prospects for any real changes are slim. Rockland is one of the most segregated counties in New York State. This small county has 9 police departments. Over-policing and extensive fines help to maintain the status quo. Additionally, some of the police officers in Rockland enjoy the highest salaries among state employees. In 2017, the five highest salaried New York State employees were officers in Rockland police departments. Why would they want to change?
The good news is that activism has never been greater. Demonstrations have been ongoing all over the county since May. Almost one thousand people protested in one village alone. The process involving Executive Order 203 will lead people to a better understanding of the nature of policing and the State. The community will be more united to fight when the next crisis comes.
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Marc Pessin is a member of the New Paltz Socialists, Vice-President of the Martin Luther King Multipurpose Center, steering committee member of the Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow, steering committee member of the Rockland Citizens Action Network, member of the Peoples Panel on Reform of Policing, and a teacher of social studies and history for 51 years.