Binghamton Police Reform Plan Aims For Transparency, But Is It Enough?
BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — The Binghamton City Council will vote on the city’s Police Reform and Reinvention Plan on Monday. The plan includes seven goals, increasing transparency and diversifying the police force among them.
The draft outlines plans to release annual summary reports of officer discipline and hire a recruitment officer, but Henry Smart, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said those plans alone are not enough.
The summary report measure is meant to make the Binghamton Police Department more accountable, but Smart said summary reports can be too limited to meet that goal.
“They tend to shield the truth and it tends to protect the police officers,” Smart explained.
Multiple interview requests to the Binghamton police chief and Mayor Rich David were not returned.
With New York’s repeal of 50-A last year, barriers to records of police discipline were struck down, but departments are still finding ways to hide that information behind fines and declined information requests.
Since 2016, officers who are fired for misconduct in New York will lose their training certifications, but other departments can still hire and recertify them after the individual retakes the 700-hour introductory course for police officers.
That, however, could lead to what Smart called “county hopping,” or when officers reported for bad behavior go on to repeat abuses at different departments.
A public and accessible record of officer discipline, Smart suggested, could prevent that.
“For every officer when you get their badge number, you should be able to look up their service record, and it should be easy,” Smart stressed.
The Division of Criminal Justice Services is required to make information about decertified officers readily available to police departments, but they typically only offer that information when a department inquires or reports a new hire.
Some in law enforcement, like Broome County Sheriff David Harder, have said staff cannot meet the demand for personnel records since the repeal of 50-A. They say public databases are too expensive to maintain and requests take hours of work their staff doesn’t have. In July, Broome County Undersheriff Eric Janis said many of the requested disciplinary files are hundreds of pages long.
To that, Smart said the state should take on the task of managing a database or give jurisdictions the funds to do so.
“These things need to be either outsourced or sponsored by the state, who will have the money,” Smart said.
Binghamton’s police reform plan came as a result of a statewide police reform push by Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has pushed to require uniform background checks when hiring and a review of the state’s registry of decertified officers.
In its plan, the city also suggests improving accountability by making the citizen complaint process more efficient and conducting regular audits of use of force and arrests so that officers can locate racial disparities.
Black residents were overrepresented in traffic stops and arrests, according to an analysis of police data from 2017 to 2019 included in the city’s reform plan. The city partnered with the Finn Institute for Public Safety to analyze that data and assess its policies.
More than a third of people arrested were Black, while Black residents make up only around 11 percent of the city’s population. White people were underrepresented in arrests by about 10 percent and arrests of Hispanic people were about equivalent to their share of the population at close to seven percent.
Other measures in the plan include exploring transportation alternatives for those taken into custody while experiencing a mental health crisis, expanding cultural competency training, expanding community policing and adding a recruitment officer to the department. That person would focus on hiring more people of color and women.
But creating a diverse police department, Smart emphasized, extends beyond hiring. He said most police departments—and industries—fail to think long-term when setting goals for diversity.
“We always fail because we never think about the retention,” Smart said. “We just think about, ‘let’s recruit,’ and we fail that pretty well across the board anyway.”
Close to 30 percent of Binghamton’s population is composed of people of color, but they only make up 10 percent of the police force—up from six percent three years ago—according to the city’s 300-page draft of the plan.
Back in 2015, Mayor David said retaining officers of color was a problem and promised to set aside funds to fix it. The city formed a committee to address the issue and diversity increased, but the department still doesn’t completely reflect the residents it serves.
Smart said the problem probably has to do with retention and organizational culture.
“How do you retain them and keep them there and make them feel a part of the unit? That’s a cultural change,” Smart added. “But at least if you get someone within the organization that’s responsible for it, you at least know someone’s working on that internal welcoming environment that you need to have in order for diversity to be maintained.”
Smart said hiring someone dedicated to retention could change the culture, if paired with changes to training.
“The most powerful person in a police department is not the chief. It is not your lieutenant,” Smart said. “It is the person who’s translating culture, organizational culture, for everyone else.”
Training officers are responsible for setting that culture. The city’s plan listed exploring “train the trainer” programs for current police officers as a goal. If they follow through on that promise, Smart said long-term reform might begin.