ON THE SCENE: Top cops weigh in on brutality and racism

Lake Placid Police Chief Bill Moore (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Since May 26, the day George Floyd day died while being arrested in Minneapolis, there have been weekly protests against police brutality and racism in the Adirondacks as elsewhere. The most recent took place Sunday, July 5 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, organized by John Brown Lives as a memorial to Blacks who have died as a result of police violence. It included a reading of Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 speech, “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?”

These protests led me to questions about local law enforcement’s take on these protests and what steps they are taking to help those in their command be more sensitive to Blacks and other minorities’ life experiences. Currently, a tiny percent of the North Country’s population is people of color, as is true of the visitors who come to our region, about 4%, according to the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism’s most recent visitor survey.

Thus, I posed my questions to Lake Placid Police Chief Bill Moore, Essex County Sheriff David Reynolds, and State Police Maj. Ruben Oliver, commander of Troop B.

Racism does exist in the Adirondacks, as it does throughout the U.S. and around the world, the latter evidenced by the number of international demonstrations protesting racism. Nicole Hylton-Patterson, director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, and Clifton Harcum, program coordinator at SUNY Potsdam’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, voiced examples of racism during their second online Antiracism Education and Mobilization Campaign presentation on June 29.

Hylton-Patterson noted the high number of Confederate flags and Black jockey garden figurines she sees driving around the region. Harkcum spoke about being stopped by police well over a dozen times in the past year while driving between Saranac Lake and Potsdam. The most potent illustration was voiced by Francine Newman, Saranac Lake High School’s 2020 valedictorian, during her graduation address about experiencing racism growing up.

State Police Maj. Ruben Oliver (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“Talking about race isn’t something I’ve ever been comfortable with,” said Newman, an Asian American. “It isn’t something that the other 98.2% of Adirondackers can relate to, and it isn’t something that I wanted to acknowledge that set me apart from everyone else. Growing up with white friends and a white family, it was easy to pretend that I wasn’t Asian. I hated that my mom didn’t look like other moms. I hated that I didn’t look like other kids. I hated my eyes. I hated my nose.”

Newman described a litany of race jokes and other abuses she’s experienced from schoolmates, teachers, adults, visitors and others, violations that at times brought her to tears while in class. Missing was empathy or support. Teachers urged her to toughen up instead of admonishing those who created such pain. Thus, Newman began to hate herself, and her grades and other aspects of her life degraded. That she found the ability to like herself, improve her academic standing and finally share her experience of pain to her classmates and community is extraordinary. Her message is that racism is not inherent but learned and that we need to address it here, now, and together.

Moore, Reynolds, and Oliver all voiced support of people’s right to protest. They praised how respectful and peaceful local protests have been.

They deplored both the horrific treatment of Floyd and acts of violence that have burst out in many urban communities such as Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and New York City.

“Our First Amendment gives us the right to assemble and protest peacefully,” said Reynolds. “I’m for it. I support that right and encourage people to do it as long as it’s peaceful. I attended both events held in Elizabethtown and spoke at one of them. We are fortunate where we live. We do not see the problems, the riots that have taken place in Albany, Rochester and elsewhere. That’s not happening here. We have respectful protesters. We encourage it and have no problem whatever your message is.”

Essex County Sheriff David Reynolds (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Reynolds acknowledges that unfair economic policies is a root cause for many who riot. He noted that a high percentage of “essential workers” are not paid a living wage and even correction workers, and many in the police who have challenging jobs, are paid modest salaries. And, for a high percentage of people of color, the economic unfairness can be brutal, driving some to lash out violently, which he and his colleagues will not tolerate if so confronted.

They also feel that the training of the police in our region has improved over the past 10 to 20 years and that relations with the community are good, an outcome of hard work. Reynolds and Moore pointed to local police hosting Halloween events, participating in high school graduation parades and serving as school safety officers, which have helped improve police-community relations.

As for the next steps, there are some differences of opinion among these top police officers.

Reynolds said he feels the police, at least here, are already complying with much of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 that requires police and community leaders to develop a collaborative self-assessment. He and others agree there is a need to learn about Blacks’ and other minorities’ life experiences, what makes many afraid to visit the Adirondacks, and what’s been their life experience interacting with law enforcement in their home communities and elsewhere.

“Before receiving Executive Order 203, Nicky Hylton-Patterson of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative reached out to us,” said Reynolds. “They want to know what we are already doing, and we’ll show them. I think reducing funding for local police is a mistake. I think more money needs to be put into hiring mental health professionals. Right now, our people responding have to be the mental health professionals, the trained soldiers if stuff goes sideways, a teacher for 5-year-old kids, and we’re often the EMTs. We have all these hats we have to wear. I can’t tell you how many thank yous we get each week for responding to some family’s need. Your experiences guide how you treat people.”

To expand those experiences, Reynolds favors a countywide approach that brings members of law enforcement together from across the region, and, specifically, to learn from officers of color as he feels peer-to-peer training is the most effective.

Moore feels the training should focus on the men and women on patrol, those who interact with the public. A week ago, he met with Hylton-Patterson and her board members, who will develop a program to assist his department gain diversity training.

“What I need is to educate the boots on the ground,” said Moore. “I go to a lot of countrywide and other meetings, now as Zoom meetings. A lot does get accomplished, but my need is training for the people who interact with the general public and people of color. They need to learn directly from Nicole and her team.”

Oliver grew up in a diverse family in a very multi-cultural New York City neighborhood. His mother is from Puerto Rico. At the same time, his father and many relatives served in the police. So he never thought of the police as being people to fear; they represented people he loved. Yet he is sensitive to the need for increased communication and understanding.

“I don’t remember ever not being exposed to people of different races and backgrounds,” said Oliver.

He also said that the training of all State Police is done in concert so that statewide there is a consistent approach and directed me to a spokesperson, Kirstin Lowman. She responded, “One of the core values of the State Police is continuous learning and improvement. We review policies and procedures on an ongoing basis to provide the best possible service to New Yorkers. We are willing to meet with any organization that requests our participation.”

Toward that end, Lowman shared a statewide directive made by Superintendent Keith Corlett. He wrote, “The work we do and how we continue to conduct ourselves moving forward will restore confidence in our profession. Let’s show the public we want to be an ally, not the enemy.”

Moore said he feels change has to become generational and the best way to address reducing racism is through educating kids so they will grow up learning about the history and life experiences of Blacks and other people of color.

“I’m in favor of change,” said Moore. “But change is not going to happen overnight, we all have to realize that. I hope people will see people as people. I want to help that happen.”