“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced” said novelist James Baldwin. Those words provide wisdom to steer Peekskill’s Police Reform Taskforce that begins its work tonight (Thursday) at 7 in the Neighborhood Center.
Residents can attend virtually by going to the city’s website (https://www.cityofpeekskill.com/home/pages/meeting-video) or by calling (929) 205-6099 to offer public comment. Anyone who attends in person is required to wear a mask and will have their temperature taken at the door. Seating is limited.
People who would like to comment are encouraged to go to the city’s taskforce web page at https://www.cityofpeekskill.com/police/pages/peekskill-police-reform-taskforce to familiarize themselves with the process.
The newly created taskforce is responding to Executive Order 203 from Governor Andrew Cuomo for municipalities to examine police policies and practices after consulting community stakeholders. The reform plan must be adopted by the Common Council by April 1,2021 in order for the city’s police department to be eligible for future state funding. Each police agency’s reform plan must address policies, procedures, practices and deployment, including but not limited to use of force, and address issues of racial disparities wherever they exist.
Tonight’s agenda will focus on members introducing themselves. The evening will be moderated by Susie Erdey, chairperson of the Human Relations Commission. Mayor Andre Rainey will welcome people and President of the NAACP Valerie Eaton will name the appointments to the Taskforce. The steering committee received some 30 applications from city residents interested in participating in the process.
Police Chief Don Halmy will report about current police policy and Mayo Bartlett, co-chair of the county Police Taskforce will speak. Public comment via Zoom or in-person will begin. Establishing next steps and a meeting schedule will conclude the evening. Leadership of the taskforce will be determined by the group after the initial meeting.
Other members of the steering committee that planned tonight’s event include City of Peekskill Judge Reginald Johnson, Councilman Ramon Fernandez and City Manager Andy Stewart.
Peekskill is fortunate to have Mayo Bartlett on its reform taskforce as an advisor. Bartlett worked for the Westchester County District Attorney’s office for 11 years, with stints in Mt. Vernon and Peekskill.
An advocate for racial justice in policing, Bartlett spoke in June on a Facebook Live panel discussion hosted by County Legislator Colin Smith entitled Race, Police Brutality and Accountability.
“We have an opportunity here. Each and every police department can do better. The officers who took a knee, who embraced people, those officers are the best of the best. They are the ones who are a bridge between their departments and the community. We need structural and legislative change and we need to support elected officials,” said Bartlett.
One area that the task force will be examining is use of police force. This is an especially pertinent subject for Peekskill’s task force as the Common Council authorized a payout of $125,000 at its September 14 meeting in a case involving excessive force by two police officers stemming from a 2017 incident. One of the officers is no longer on the police force.
“An inappropriate use of force resulted in real personal injuries” against Jairo Guerra said his attorney Steven Warshawsky who brought a lawsuit against two officers. Chief Halmy said that after an internal investigation that included input from the District Attorney’s office it was found that, “the officers acted within the scope of their duties and there was no discipline to either officer. Nothing was done wrong and it was not a case of excessive force.” The incident occurred before Halmy was police chief.
Guerra and his attorney wanted a jury trial, but after the discovery phase where evidence from both sides is presented to the court, the court ordered mediation. Through the mediation process, which was slowed down by the pandemic, a settlement agreement was reached. “It was a fair settlement that both sides found acceptable,” said Warshawsky.
City attorney Melissa Ferraro had no comment. The city was represented by outside law firm Hodges, Walsh & Burke of White Plains.