Public discusses concerns with St. Lawrence County sheriff during policing reform forum
BY ANDY GARDNER
North Country This Week
CANTON -- Members of the public aired several concerns during a St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office open police reform forum.
The public session was held at the St. Lawrence County legislature boardroom on Wednesday, Oct. 21 and streamed live online via Zoom and YouTube.The comment came as Sheriff Brooks Bigwarfe discussed with members of the public and stakeholder groups what his office is doing to meet the state’s police reform requirements.
During a segment of the presentation on what the Sheriff’s Office is doing to increase positive contacts with the community, Bigwarfe mentioned they will speak to neighborhood watch groups and offer advice and guidance.
John Youngblood, a SUNY Potsdam professor and Black Lives Matter Potsdam organizer, asked if officers are clearly indicating to neighborhood watch groups what their rights are as far as using force.
“Is someone thinking because they have been spoken to by the police and they have some binoculars and permission to watch, that they’re the police? Do you take deliberate care to let them know they’re not the police, they’re not being deputized,” Youngblood said. “I’m worried (about) people thinking they have some level of power or authority.”
Bigwarfe said they are advising the neighborhood watch groups “you don’t have deputized powers.”
“We really talk about getting 911 and notifying the appropriate authorities,” he said.
He said New York state in a law called Article 35 outlines what police and civilians can use as far as deadly force. The sheriff cited as an example an intoxicated person accidentally entering the wrong house.
“He’s in my house, I can do what I want. No so much. Just because they enter your house doesn’t mean you can use certain deadly force,” he said. “I always tell them you have the right to protect the property you own … It’s a big debate, and I go back and forth with people in the audience about what they can and can’t do in their household.”
Eileen Raymond of Canton asked what’s being done as far as better coordination between state, county and local police. She pointed to a pursuit the past weekend that started in Malone, in neighboring Franklin County, and ended in the Village of Canton.
“We ended up with something like 12 police vehicles going through the center of Canton at high speed. Apparently there were some problems with coordination … no one knew where these people were running until they were going by my house,” Raymond said. “The real question is, addressing it because a particular incident happened is not the same as addressing it from a systemic perspective.”
Bigwarfe said the problem was because Franklin and St. Lawrence County don’t have linked emergency communication channels.
“Malone PD does not have our police frequencies … that’s where a lot of the communications arose,” Sheriff Bigwarfe said. “We’re constantly working with chiefs and upgrading our radios.”
He added that in his 34 years in law enforcement, an incident like that is “rare … of another police agency from another county coming into our county.”
St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Tom Burns, a member of the stakeholder group, spoke up and said it would likely be difficult to get all of the regional law enforcement agencies on the same communication channels. He pointed to his work coordinating efforts between 18 school districts in his BOCES region. He likened it to “herding cats.”
“The bottom line is people love the idea of consolidation … until it impacts their local institution … people are pridefully loyal to their school district or town,” Burns said. “Try to shut down even the smallest local post office and see what happens … I offer this as someone who works on that every day and has for 12 years.”
Canton Town Supervisor Mary Ann Ashley wrote an email that was read aloud where she asked what the department is doing as far as training officers on working with the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender people.
“I would ask the department, county legislature … increase in training to understand the LGBTQ community,” as read from Ashley’s email. “Perhaps it could be added to the training program as a specific requirement of the accreditation process.”
She also suggested “meeting with the LGBTQ community to listen to their experiences and hear their concerns.”
“We definitely ensure our employees are well-versed as far as acceptance of anybody’s habits, rights, their … gender, their sexuality. Any of those issues are addressed to a T. We take that very seriously,” said Undersheriff Sean O’Brien. “We have members of our office, and we’re proud to have members of our office that are of that community. We accept those people and they’re great employees. Anything they have to bring, we’ll listen to them.”
St. Lawrence County Legislator Margaret Haggard, D-Potsdam, spoke via Zoom and asked if the Sheriff’s Office may reconvene the stakeholder group to see if the suggestions and plans discussed at the meeting actually work.
“How do you go back and self-evaluate and say ‘has this worked, has that worked?’ What is the process? Does this group ever come back together … such a diverse group of people with so many good ideas. Is this an ongoing thing you would do?” she asked the sheriff.
Bigwarfe said the group that met that night is only to meet the state requirements on police reform.
“We implement our changes. We always self-examine. We’re always re-inventing things and reviewing and doing self evaluations and evaluations of our officers. Whether it works or not, I can’t predict the future,” he said. “Hopefully some of these changes come to fruition and assist us.”
The sheriff does not feel that policing problems reported in the national news, like brutality and excessive force, are a problem in St. Lawrence County.
“I don’t see the issues I see on the news in our county as a whole. I’m not saying we’re perfect, or everybody’s perfect,” the sheriff said.
“I’ve been working in this office for 34 years. I don’t see police brutality issues or anything like that in our department … We don’t have these problems today,” Bigwarfe said.
Part of the public forum was to discuss the plan that the sheriff’s office will implement to meet the state requirements. It also has to be voted on by the county legislature.
One of the state-level reforms is removing police officer disciplinary records from automatically being exempt from Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Members of the public can now request to see any officer’s disciplinary record.
Undersheriff O’Brien said he supports the change and called it “a benefit for the community and police officers.”
“This helps us to ensure the bad apples are removed from the barrel,” O’Brien said. “Any officer doing his job or her job welcomes this with open arms.”
Bigwarfe clarified that this only includes internal disciplinary charges and called the change “a good safeguard that wasn’t there a year ago.”
“When you’re talking about disciplinary records when an officer is charged, that doesn’t mean criminally charged. That can be … an internal investigation. It involves internal discipline,” District Attorney Gary Pasqua said.
The statewide requirements include reporting a firearm discharge within six hours of it happening, providing medical or mental healthcare to anyone in custody who needs it, and adding a chokehold ban to the department’s use-of-force policy.
Bigwarfe said his office already requires prompt reporting of a firearm discharge. He feels it should be reported immediately, not six hours later.
“I can tell you, my officers don’t wait six hours to call. My verbiage would be immediately, as soon as possible you should call your supervisor. I don’t know where they got that six hours,” the sheriff said. “This is kind of one of those things we’ve been doing forever. It’s not new to us. We’ve been doing this reporting since 2010.”
He said that mental health counseling is being made available to county jail inmates, and when officers have an encounter with someone who needs mental health treatment, they generally ask a healthcare provider for an order.
“Our agency, the standard is we always try to get a pick-up order. It’s a pain to reach out to a provider. We trust the people who do this everyday,” Bigwarfe said.
He also noted that the statewide chokehold ban is now included in their use-of-force policy. At the state level, it is now a crime for an officer to restrict respiration or blood flow “unless deadly force is authorized.”