Breaking down the proposed Syracuse police reform plan

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Syracuse’s Common Council on Monday delayed a vote on a draft of the Syracuse Police Reform and Reinvention Plan until next week. The 76-page plan outlines steps to reform the Syracuse Police Department’s hiring process, response and community outreach, among other changes.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated reform and reinvention plans in June for every municipality in New York state in response to nationwide protests against police brutality. Cuomo required each area to submit finalized versions of the plans to Albany by April.

The city of Syracuse collected recommendations from the Onondaga County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, a set of committees made of local law enforcement, community activists and residents. The collaborative created a set of recommendations for every municipality in the county to use in their respective plans.

“(Our priorities are) increasing trust with the community (by) making sure the Syracuse Police Department is reflective of 21st century best practices, making sure that we have accountability and making sure that we have transparency,” SPD Chief Kenton Buckner said in an interview with The Daily Orange.

In June and July 2020, Last Chance for Change marched for 40 days throughout Syracuse to advocate for police reform, LCFC and 13 other organizations created the People’s Agenda for Policing. This includes passing the Right to Know Act and mandating body cameras for on-duty officers.

The city plan combines responses to demands activists made last summer with new recommendations. Here’s a breakdown of what it addresses:

Community outreach

To increase trust between the police and community, SPD plans to hold press briefings about “critical incidents” involving the police and will publish additional department policies on its website. SPD will also publish an annual use of force report starting in January 2022.

The plan also outlines a cadet program with Public Service Leadership Academy at Fowler High School to fast-track qualified students into the police force. Fowler has the highest rate of poverty of any high school in the Syracuse City School District, and the program plans to target those most overlooked by traditional recruitment. Graduates of the program would be provided interim employment and training until they can take the civil service exam to become a police officer.

Social service professionals in policing

Activists nationwide have advocated for deploying social service professionals to mental health crises instead of police officers. SPD’s proposed model doesn’t do this but instead would expand the department’s Crisis Intervention Training program to include more officers.

Currently, only 60 of 369 SPD officers are certified in crisis intervention. Under the new plan, the department would expand certification to 25% of the force and train all new cadets as well. CIT training includes information about responding to post traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse and suicides.

The response has received criticism from activists and legislators alike.

“(CIT training) is really important as a part, but as a standalone, you cannot ask police officers to be mental health providers,” said Mary Kuhn, an Onondaga County legislator who represents a portion of Syracuse.

Kuhn is a member of the Alternatives to Policing subcommittee for the county collaborative and is a retired clinical social worker. She pointed to a recent event in Rochester when police responding to a 911 call handcuffed and pepper sprayed a 9-year-old girl after she threatened to kill herself. No mental health professionals were present at the scene.

Syracuse’s plan also commits to creating a 911 response diversion program for incoming mental health-related calls but does not provide a specific outline. Kuhn said the county collaborative committee recommended a model similar to the one present in Broome County, where Binghamton is located.

The Broome County model outlines a protocol to determine if police response is needed for a mental health crisis call, and dispatchers have the option to connect callers with mental health specialists over the phone or arrange for the caller to be taken to a mental health facility.

“We are dealing with the aftermath of a systemic problem. But before you deal with the systemic problem you have to deal with what’s on the ground,” Kuhn said.

Police in schools

SPD is also reevaluating the role of police officers in schools.

Activists, including those from the Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition, have called on SPD and SCSD to remove officers from schools. They’ve expressed concerns that the presence of law enforcement increases the number of young people who enter the criminal justice system for minor offences.

Although the plan does not commit to removing self-regulatory organizations from schools, it outlines a way to collaborate with SCSD to create a model for SRO deployment.

Use of force policy

SPD released a new use of force policy for public comment in October 2020. It outlines new limits on how officers can interact with suspects and people in custody and bans chokeholds, firing on moving vehicles and using any force as a form of retaliation or punishment. It also limits the use of no-knock warrants, which allow law enforcement to enter a property without immediate prior notification to residents.

“This new policy will ensure that no-knock warrants are not used unless they are thoroughly and carefully reviewed at the highest level of SPD,” the plan states.

More stories on the Syracuse Police Department:

The draft use of force policy also outlines an emphasis on de-escalation and reporting of instances of force being used. SPD plans to implement the new policy in 2021, according to the reform plan.

Attention to marginalized communities

The city plans to negotiate with SPD’s union to implement financial incentives for officers proficient in a second language. It also requires SPD to implement tools, such as a translation app, to better interact with individuals with communication disabilities.

SPD recently implemented a new policy to improve interactions with transgender and nonbinary people. It acknowledges that transgender people are disproportionately the victims of crimes and outlines specific policy to ask for and use a person’s pronouns.

Diversity in hiring

As of January, only 10% of SPD officers were Black and 17% were women, according to the plan. In accordance with the mayor’s executive order, SPD has committed to making the force more representative of the Syracuse community.

We are dealing with the aftermath of a systemic problem. But before you deal with the systemic problem you have to deal with what’s on the ground.

Maty Kuhn, Onondaga County legislator

SPD is in talks with the police union to require that all new hires be Syracuse residents. Some activists have said that officers may not feel a direct connection to the community they serve if they don’t live in it. The plan also calls for the involvement of a community interview panel in the hiring process for all officers.


Despite fulfilling Cuomo’s requirements, some activist groups, like SPAARC, have criticized SPD for not addressing some issues they deem critical.

“The budget of SPD has not been changed at all by this plan,” SPAARC activist George Kunkel said. “The accountability process has not changed at all, and we are seeing real-time representation of the fact that the union can stop any sort of change from happening, even as small as passing out business cards.”

The Right to Know Act called for officers to hand out business cards containing identifying information, but their distribution just began after months of delays from the SPD union.

Buckner said he isn’t concerned about the influence of the union over reform efforts.

“While some feel like the union has been a barrier to rolling this out, if you look back to the protest period, pandemic and now reform, this is the first thing the union has formally asked for, and we thought it was a reasonable request,” Buckner said.

The reform plan also doesn’t lay out new policies about the Citizen Review Board, a civilian oversight board that reviews complaints against SPD officers and recommends action. CRB recommendations are not binding, and SPD does not have to follow them.

As part of his executive order last summer, Walsh instructed SPD to improve relations with the CRB and take their considerations into account more when investigating misconduct. SPD committed to reviewing CRB recommendations before deciding on the outcome of misconduct investigations. The reform plan does not list new policy or action beyond what is stated in the executive order and in SPD’s prior response.

“When you talk about accountability, you have to talk about it in terms of what we haven’t done yet,” SPAARC activist TJ Davis said. “This plan doesn’t include anything we haven’t done yet.”

If the council votes to approve the plan, it will then be certified by the mayor and submitted to the state by April 1.

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