Meaningful change could be coming for police oversight and community relations in the City of Albany.
With the help of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, members of the Albany Community Police Review Board are submitting recommendations to improve policing. They’re starting with “low-hanging fruit”—such as having the police publish their policies—according to Profes- sor Ava Ayers, who directs the Government Law Center, which administers the board. At present, the board is limited in its powers. “For a lot of people that makes it not worth it to file a complaint,” Ayers said. “Right now the board can only voice its opinion, and not even do it in very clear language.” The board does not have subpoena power. Despite the pandemic, students at Albany Law School have been researching issues to help the board with its recommendations for change.
Usually only two students volunteer for a CPRB project. But this summer, amid mass protests for police reform in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and other men and women of color, five students joined the effort.
“Our team this summer is unusually large, but we’ve had a lot of interest,” Ayers said. “These are students at the law school trying to meaningfully contribute to a better life for people in the community where the law school is situated.”
It’s been a learning experience for the students, too. Take the issue of police discipline. Should the board be able to decide or recommend discipline of an officer? On the surface, students have the initial urge to say yes. Ayers is helping them, and the board, think it through.
“Is that legal? Would the police union be able to sue, to say that violates their collective bargaining agreement?” Ayers asked. And if the board could mete out discipline, she had more questions about the process. “Is it just a majority vote? There’s going to be some sort of challenge. Would there be a hearing? What rights would the officer have at the hearing? What about evidence?” The board would probably also need legal staffers who could advise on personnel matters, she added.
There’s also the fact that when the current board members were selected by the mayor and the Common Council, those decision-makers weren’t thinking about what would be required for a board that would impose discipline. Would it be more fair to let the mayor and Common Council reappoint board members, or revisit their appointments, with the new powers in mind?
“Part of our job at the Government Law Center is to identify those questions,” Ayers said. “Every time you change the powers of the board, you want to think those things through.”
Some people have advocated for defunding police, which brings its own set of questions. “What does that look like, who do they give [the funds] to, what have other [cities] done?” she asked. “This is where students come in. What are the possibilities and what are the pros and cons?”
She thinks that considering these questions will lead to comprehensive improvement in community relations and police oversight.
Ayers is also on a task force with two members of the board working on the city’s police reform plan. The State of New York has said that each municipality must file its plan by April 1, 2021. “There are a lot of good ideas out there,” she said, adding that the Community Police Review Board might be “very different” in a year.
Ayers is pleased that students can watch—and participate— from within the Government Law Center.
“They get to see how a movement for social change translates to action in local govern- ment,” Ayers said. “It’s useful for students to see how protests and grassroots advocacy can open up a political space.”
Students are also learning about delivering research on deadline. “Everyone is aware there is a clock tick- ing. If research is going to be useful during these conversa- tions about reform, you need to move fairly quickly.” Ayers added that she won’t be sur- prised if the moment leads to significant changes. “I do think it’s typical for major change that nothing happens for 18 years and then it happens suddenly,” she said.
Others are stunned by the speed. Ivy Morris, chair of the Community Police Review Board, said she couldn’t foresee protests going on for weeks, much less elected officials supporting police reform bills that ban things such as chokeholds and tear gas.
“I never expected we would get to this point,” Morris said. Cell phone footage showing police violence against un- armed Black people and other people of color, and the tear gassing of nonviolent protest- ers, have changed the public’s perspective, she added. “Seeing it on video, we are all experi- encing things we have never experienced before.”
The board continued to hold virtual meetings during the coronavirus shutdown. Since the rules state that board members can only view case details at the police department, which was closed to them at the time, the board began taking community input for hours at a time. People responded so much that the board plans to continue holding some virtual meetings for public conversations.
“The community involvement is the upside,” Morris said.
Board member Nairobi Vives ’12 is eager to put this moment to use. “I think that the smaller incremental changes are easy to get, but we should take advan- tage of this moment in history and push,” she said.
Vives has been proposing ways, based on the appeals and work of community members, local and national advocates, and scholars, to get police back to basic policing, funding social services and other community-based programs with some of the money now used by the police department. She doesn’t want to just “outlaw some sort of hold.”
“That does nothing to change the system. It doesn’t change the structure,” Vives said.
“We want true change. A true reimagining of not just the board but the whole system.”
In the meantime, the Government Law Center— and its students—will be helping Morris, Vives, and their colleagues on the Community Police Review Board consider all of the angles.
“If you’d told me a year ago that we would be having a serious conversation about giving the board discipline power, subpoena power, I would have thought you were joking,” Ayers said. “I think that’s really because a lot of activists, through protests and other forms of advocacy, have opened up a space for discussion.”