By Jay Stevens
In many of the more conservative parts of the country, one of the issues dominating the ‘down-ballot’ races (Congress, state legislator, and County Sheriff among them) is what could be summed up as efforts to restore what people in these areas see as a loss of support for local police departments.
Fortunately, the Mohawk Valley is one area that has not seen violent protests, or large-scale public condemnation of local police departments. In fact, in the recent Oneida Square protest against police brutality, Utica Police officers participated—and were treated courteously by participants. For the most part, police enjoy more support here than they might in decidedly more conservative areas.
In spite of that, several Democratic election officials have issued statements or outlined proposals in support of police departments. Oneida County Sheriff Robert Maciol and other leaders and members of the New York State Sheriff’s Association recently unveiled ten measures designed to toughen offenses such as resisting arrest which could clearly give more power to police who are questioning a suspect. Their press release refers to the climate police officers now face—although, as mentioned, the climate here in the Mohawk Valley has clearly not been hostile to law enforcement.
“There is a time and place to question an officer’s actions, but not in the middle of the street when the officer is under pressure to control a situation on behalf of the public’s safety,” said the Sheriff’s Association President, Washington County Sheriff Jeffrey Murphy.
Unfortunately, it is just in that stressful climate that, as we’ve seen in recent months, disastrous decisions are made by law enforcement. And any measure that rolls back the still somewhat limited rights a Black suspect has during questioning by law enforcement is merely affirming an attitude of police supremacy.
Maciol is not even on the ballot this year, and he hasn’t stated his future political plans yet, but in the past, he’s often been seen as an ally of efforts to improve law enforcement, and that reputation may be ending with this proposal.
Just days after, Congressman Anthony Brindisi introduced legislation to prevent jurisdictions defunding their police departments from receiving grants under certain federal economic development assistance programs, and the Community Development Block Grant program.
Reading further, there probably are few if any jurisdictions where this would apply, even if it became law. “Defunding” is a misleading term, and generally most communities considering changing their local criminal justice system actually want to redirect money to a more appropriate agency. For example, some communities are considering funding mental health organizations to respond to calls involving a personal crisis, since police departments by their very nature are often not equipped to evaluate people with mental health issues.
Sanctioning communities from vitally needed housing and community development funds if the will of the people is to find criminal justice alternatives is really the wrong approach to take at a time when many people fear a nighttime jog or a drive into a different neighborhood. Congressman Brindisi has been supportive of minority groups in the region for many years, but this attempt to dictate how communities decide what public safety should look like doesn’t reflect the concerns of so many Black, Brown, and progressive residents of the Utica area. These are people who turned out in droves in 2018 to elect him, and it’s the sort of thing that could discourage that enthusiasm this time around. Given the support of left-leaning organizations in the Mohawk Valley for a reorganization of our criminal justice system, he could find some of his former loyal campaign supporters feeling lukewarm at best toward his re-election effort.
Brindisi opponent Claudia Tenney and other Republican candidates are holding “Back the Blue” rallies in support of law enforcement, districts may feel the need to show some socially conservative stripes on law and Democrats in ‘purple’ districts may feel the need to show some socially conservative stripes on law enforcement issues.
Earlier this year, Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon became one of the few Democratic members of the State Assembly or State Senate to vote against repealing section 50-a of State Civil Rights Law, which had shielded law enforcement personnel from disclosing personnel records used to evaluate their performance. The repeal passed, and with Governor Cuomo’s signature became 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.
In a Utica Phoenix story in the July issue, Utica Common Council member Delvin Moody expressed his disappointment in that vote. While all three of these Democrats frequently attend events sponsored by minority groups (Brindisi also participated in the recent protest against police brutality in Utica), taking stances that could erode this summer’s demand for racial justice and equality may not be appealing to some voters—and could lead to voter apathy.
These Democratic officials seem to believe measures like these will boost their support Wha among conservative Independents, and Republicans who are willing to split their ticket, while not losing supporters who are on board with most of their positions on the issues. What happens in November (or in 2022, if Maciol seeks re-election again) might have very little to do with these policy positions—or could change the nature of the election—like many things in political races, it’s all a roll of the dice.