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While law enforcement agencies and local governments around New York State formulated police reform plans during the first quarter of 2021 under Executive Order 203, a group of Albany Law School students working in the Government Law Center (GLC) were also engaged in the process.
Matt DeLaus ’22 and Ruchi Patel ’22 teamed up to draft a letter on behalf of the
Albany Community Police Review Board (CPRB) urging the New York State Legislature to take various actions to improve civilian oversight of police throughout New York State. The duo gathered policy ideas for the draft and the Albany CPRB plans to share the letter with its equivalent organizations throughout the state before submitting it to the Legislature.
“I love the enthusiasm and critical thinking that each student brings to each assignment. You can tell this work means a lot to them,” said Melody Harkness, the Albany CPRB Program Manager.
Harkness works within the GLC through a unique partnership between the independent board. The GLC provides substantial support services to assist the Board in its duties and responsibilities. Harkness and GLC Director Ava Ayers oversee the students’ work.
“We need more committed advocates for impactful policy changes. When I meet with our students I see passionate attorneys influencing positive change in government. I see some students who will be shattering glass ceilings, which is necessary for the changes we need to see in local and state governance, especially as it pertains to police reform,” Harkness said.
Beyond the letter, DeLaus, Olivia Fleming ‘22, and Calum d’Oelsnitz ‘22 have been collecting each of the various reform plans adopted by municipalities and posting them to the GLC’s website. There are 500 jurisdictions with police departments in New York State. The students have started to analyze the plans through legal lenses. Gienabou Diallo ’23 has been observing the work and hopes to join the team this summer.
“This has been an invaluable experience. Reviewing and analyzing various municipality plans has been eye-opening,” said Fleming. “I feel like I am making an impact already.”
“Seeing an end goal where the work you produce and research may directly help reforming policing is an experience I did not expect to have in law school, and I could not be more grateful to the Center and to Professor Ayers for the opportunity to be a part of this project,” said Fleming.
While many students have been focused on the greater statewide plans, Ryan Hunlock ’21 has been specifically working on Local Law J in Albany which was unanimously approved by the city’s Common Council in March. While there are still legal hurdles and referendum votes pending on the law (more information here) if fully enacted it would give the Albany CPRB an official budget, subpoena power, the ability to obtain police body camera and dashcam footage, the authority to discipline an officer, and the ability to hire investigators for independent investigations about police misconduct.
Hunlock is keeping track of various legislative reform proposals that are being circulated to see what issues remain unaddressed.
“The importance of this kind of real-world legal experience cannot be overstated,” Hunlock said. “The GLC faculty are growth-oriented and the supervision is true mentorship. As someone who is about to graduate, and is preparing to pivot to actual legal practice, my short time with the GLC has certainly been fulfilling. It's been quite valuable to press my legal skills to the service of local governments as they contend with police reform, both as a matter of public service and as an opportunity to use my legal-analytical skill set.”
While local plans had to be adopted by April 1 in order for local governments to continue to receive state funding there is likely going to be much more debate about each one. Albany Law students are ready to continue the work too.
“Our students are reviewing legislation in real-time - attending meetings with key stakeholders and providing insight and research - they are getting hands-on with how change is made,” Harkness said. “They are gaining key skills and experiences that are directly correlated with a career in government service. Developing these skills now will certainly set them up for success in the future.”