By Jay Stevens
Photo Credits:Nancy Ford
In the days after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the hands of the police officers sworn to ‘protect and serve’ their community, Uticans turned out by the hundreds to peacefully protest police violence by marking down James Street to Oneida Square.
Utica fifth district Common Councilman Delvin Moody helped coordinate the protest, and is part of a new generation of young leaders across the country who want to bring change to their communities.
The New York State Legislature responded quickly to the issue with the passage of 10 bills that ban chokeholds and significantly improve police department accountability—including the creation of an Office under the Attorney General to investigate all police-related deaths, as well as establishing a new Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Agency.
“Our protest was peaceful, but I’m not sure the message has been heard by everyone. People came to a protest at a moment—what we see across the country. But some folks believe we don’t need any improvement at all. Some members of government don’t think so either, but they’re forced to, because of the state’s reaction,” Moody said.
Moody says there’s still room for transparency, particularly with the internal review process of local law enforcement. And diversity remains a challenge—even though Utica Police Department leaders like Chief Mark Williams and Deputy Chief Ed Noonan have pledged to improve it. Moody feels there still needs to be outreach in different ways to boost diversity by better encouraging minorities to consider serving in a law enforcement agency—not just in the Utica Police Department, but in the fire department as well.
“We need to know what minority applications look like, and what some of the barriers are. It might be that some people don’t have the money to take all the tests. Some might not have a gym membership or know that they need to be (fitness) training. Or maybe the Civil Service process isn’t understood,” Moody said.
Many in Black Lives Matter and other groups are calling for a defunding of police departments, but Moody says he’s not seeking to zero out the police department’s budget. Moody says if anything, the city needs more police officers, but with a force that reflects the fact that Utica is one of the country’s most ethnically diverse communities.
Currently, Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri also serves as the city’s Public Safety Commissioner, which Moody says needs to change. He says many people in the African American community really want to see an independent person overseeing public safety in the city.
Moody says many of the changes he and others would like to see would be a very positive way forward for the entire community. He favors more officers walking neighborhood beats; creation of a Police Athletic League, so officers and young people can interact. He’d also like to see mental health workers available for crisis calls.
Ultimately Moody, who is Vice Chairman of the council’s public safety committee, would like to hold a public hearing with its chairman, Councilman at Large Frank DiBrango to build a public safety plan. While police department representatives and elected officials would participate, Moody says community members are the most important component to making further productive changes happen in Utica.
“We don’t need an advisory board with the same components that have been at every table before,” Moody says. “This has to be coordinated with our community members.”
One of the biggest disappointments Moody has seen over the past few weeks is the lack of support of Utica-area Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon for the state legislation he says is vital to police reform. On June 9th, members of the State Assembly voted 101 to 43 to repeal section 50-a of State Civil Rights Law, which had shielded law enforcement personnel from disclosing personnel records used to evaluate their performance. The State Senate approved the bill the same day, 40 to 22. Just three days later, Governor Cuomo signed the bill into law.
Buttenschon was one of only a few Democrats in either house to oppose the law. While some personal information, such as Social Security numbers and home addresses still will be private information, the new law will make items like evaluations and misconduct reports on police and corrections officers, sheriff’s deputies, and fire department personnel available to the public.
“I’m normally not the person to critique other electeds, and sometimes in difficult decisions, you don’t always know in totality why they did what they did. But I must say I am wildly disappointed in our Assemblywoman voting against the repeal of 50-a,” Moody said.
In an interview with the Rome Sentinel published on June 17th, Buttenschon said she voted no on the measure because she felt key stakeholders on the issue were absent from the discussion on it. She also said that while action is needed on the issues raised in the bill, she believes the changes in the bill wouldn’t have stopped the tragedy in Minneapolis, and could allow for the disclosure of unsubstantiated claims against law enforcement officers.
Overall, Moody strikes a positive tone when evaluating what has been done, and what can be done to improve policing in Utica.