The Community’s Voice: Police Accountability in Syracuse

From the September/October 2018 PNL #862

by Coran Klaver
SPAARC picture
SPAARC called for "Counselors, Not Cops" at a Syracuse City
School District Community Engagement Forum in May, 2018.

 

The Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition ( came together in October, 2017 with representatives of the National Action Network, NY Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of CNY to address issues of policing in the city of Syracuse. These were issues that each of these organizations was already working on independently and at times in coalition with one another; however, there was not a platform for sustained, systematic engagement with the issues of local policing similar to organizations in peer cities, such as the Rochester Coalition for Police Reform and “Enough is Enough” (also in Rochester).

The fall, 2017 Syracuse mayoral race catalyzed members of these groups to come together, knowing that the new mayor would be responsible for hiring a new police chief and negotiating a new contract with the local police union.

Because the group has been exploratory, we have relied on the coalition groups and word of mouth for our membership. After initial meetings, the group settled on two main foci: 1) police accountability and transparency, particularly (though not exclusively) in terms of the Syracuse Police Department’s (SPD) cooperation with the Citizen’s Review Board (CRB) and the effectiveness of that board itself; and 2) the school-to-prison pipeline, including using SROs (school resource officers) in city schools and suspending students of color and students with disabilities.

Our first priority as a coalition was that the new police chief be chosen through a national—not internal—search process, increasing the likelihood that the new chief would come from outside the ranks of the current police force. This was because any officer who had been promoted through the ranks of the SPD would have 1) been acculturated to its racial biases and its tactics of over-policing city residents of color and 2) developed loyalties to individuals and groups within the ranks of the SPD that would make reform difficult.

SPAARC addressed this concern at then Mayor-Elect Walsh’s community transition meetings and were pleased at his announcement that his administration would conduct a national search. His administration was also responsive to our request for community input on this process. We organized to ensure that we had representatives at all of the mayor’s community conversations about the new police chief, reiterating a message of the need for a chief a) with a proven track record of cooperating with a citizen’s review board, b) who had a commitment to training culturally responsive policing and in de-escalation, and c) who would reject the current, militarized, us-versus-them models of SPD policing in high-poverty neighborhoods.

Up to this point, the coalition has largely acted as individuals and through coalition partners, because of the power of these agents and out of a sense of need to protect the nascent organizational structure of the coalition. Behind the scenes, however, SPAARC has been meeting regularly to create strategies, talking points and concrete plans. Members and coalition partners of SPAARC were recently involved with other community groups in successfully calling for the removal of Officer Vallon Smith as an SRO from Nottingham HS after the CRB found that he had used excessive force in an incident leading to the fracturing of a fourteen-year-old student’s elbow. We have begun to renew community engagement at the CRB’s public meetings, including a mass showing at a CRB meeting at which a SPAARC member demanded that the CRB take its watchdog role more seriously. We played a key role in organizing over 70 community members to show up at a Syracuse City School District Community Engagement Forum in May calling for “Counselors not Cops” in the city schools. The Coalition responded to the city’s plan to begin using 100 new body cameras by showing up at the public forums with a clear and consistent message of what a department body camera policy should include. There have also been letter writing campaigns, meetings with city officials, and other less visible advocacy and lobbying actions.

SPAARC now needs to bring in a broader base of community participation. One of our next big challenges will be trying to serve as the community’s voice as the mayor’s office goes into contract negotiations with the Policemen’s Benevolent Association. These contracts have been a key site of the erosion of police accountability and transparency in the last twenty years. One of the reasons is that all the pressure in these negotiations has come from one direction—the police union. SPAARC is working to change that in Syracuse, joining the work on the national level of the ACLU, Campaign Zero and others.

To join our efforts or for more information, contact: Coran Klaver ccklaver@gmail.com or Andrew Croom acroom@lscny.org.

Coran is one on the convening members of the Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition (SPAARC).

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