Warren County police reform effort eyes ways for civilians to take a role

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Warren County Sheriff's Office releasing new public safety app

This article will be updated with video when it becomes available.

WARREN COUNTY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – After protests against racially-charged violence and unjust actions from law enforcement erupted last summer, New York’s county police departments were tasked with figuring out what kinds of reform their communities needed.

In Warren County, that reform includes everything from diversion programs and a diversified workforce to getting community members involved in ways that won’t get anyone unjustly hurt.

In a public meeting to lay out reform plans Wednesday, around a dozen community stakeholders from Warren County government and other community groups joined a Zoom call to speak on the progress made since they first met in November.

According to both members of the call and onlookers on the meeting’s livestream on YouTube, citizens looking for more transparent police operations are also hoping to participate more in the process.

LaFarr said that, at the November meeting, there had been some discussion of an auxiliary police force, made up of civilians who could assist in certain police operations. He said that, although a helpful idea, it was full of liability concerns.

“We talk about the training that our members have, and there’s no way we could have civilians trained to that level,” LaFarr said.

The alternative he offered was a neighborhood watch program.

The way the department has laid the proposal out within their drafted reform document, a community member interested in joining the watch would reach out, register and become a designee, acting as an extra set of eyes and ears.

“We don’t want anyone to engage an offender,” LaFarr said. “We just want them to report suspicious activity.”

LaFarr said that a neighborhood watch could serve as a method to break down barriers between citizens and police. However, viewers on the stream saw it a different way.

“Neighborhood watch programs are incredibly dangerous, and have led to the deaths of so many disabled black and brown people,” said viewer Gloria Bennet. “Neighborhood watch is what happened to Treyvon Martin.”

The concerns over abuse of power also extended to the question of white nationalism movements infiltrating the police force. LaFarr said that for new hires, the county’s screening process was detailed enough to avoid hiring an officer who would abuse their post on a racial basis. As for those already there, Warren County isn’t small, but it isn’t too big to keep track of.

“We’re small enough to know all of our people,” LaFarr said. “If we had an instance where we had someone that we should be concerned about it, we would know about it very early and we could address it.”

Warren County Public Defender Marcy Flores brought up the idea of a civilian review board, where residents could discuss more high-profile police activity and give feedback on safety and use-of-force issues.

“That topic is definitely coming up throughout the state,” Flores said. “Maybe a topic for the future, not for this report because obviously, this report will be a living document.”

A better solution than a court date

A great deal of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, as at the one before it, centered around offering constructive alternatives to those arrested and released pending court dates for drug- or alcohol-related offenses, as well as for some stemming from mental illness.

Diversion programs are still monitored by the governments where they are used, but are utilized as an alternative to a court sentence in cases where the offender is willing.

To that end, LaFarr announced that his department is working on assembling resource cards, with information on addiction and mental health treatment. Those cards will be handed to offenders when they are arrested, so when they are let out to wait for a court date, they have options.

Business owner Tim Monahan of SunKiss Ballooning suggested that many would benefit from getting a call from the department within a day, and echoed thoughts from LaFarr that many who get arrested while under the influence would benefit from having better ways forward right in front of them.

The county already has resource cards to hand out to victims of assault or other crimes.

Warren County Community Services Director Rob York suggested that another way to better help individuals in those categories would be to create a decision tree for use at 911 centers. Dispatch could make a decision on whether to send a police officer or a mobile health crisis unit depending on what branch of the tree the conversation follows.

“Once mobile crisis assesses the situation, if there is a need for law enforcement, then they would bring them in,” York said.

Broome and Schenectady counties currently employ similar practices.

On the face of the force

A returning topic Wednesday was the lack of diversity currently in the Warren County Sheriff’s Department, as brought up by Mary Gooden of the Glens Falls NAACP.

During the sheriff’s first stakeholder meeting in November, it came to light that the department does not currently employ any non-white police officers, a fact LaFarr chalked up to a low level of general interest.

On Wednesday, Gooden went further into what she had heard from her connections in the county since that last conversation. For her and those she had spoken to, the ability to find information on how to apply was lacking.

LaFarr said that information on how to test to become a county officer is posted online whenever openings are available but admitted that the information could be easily lost. He said that there are also study guides that go out, to help those nervous about testing to become an officer get a better idea of what to expect. He also pointed out that if a person takes it and fails, they can always give it another shot.

Past that, Sheriff LaFarr said he planned to start aggressively presenting for recruitment across the county, as well as closely looking at referrals from trusted groups aimed to help diversify the force. Gooden and the Glens Falls NAACP are on that list.

Video of the full, two-hour meeting will be posted at news10.com.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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