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Letter: Changing Police Culture Takes Time, Engagement (Syracuse Post-Standard)

To the Editor:

A recent Post-Standard news article and editorial pointed to measures Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler has undertaken to improve police accountability. I was quoted in the article praising Fowler for taking steps to incorporate an early warning system and improve internal affairs procedures.

That praise was merited, but as the editorial’s headline stated, these new measures “hold promise – but only results count.” Unfortunately, complaint-driven initiatives alone are unlikely to change a culture of misconduct in the Syracuse Police Department that allows officers to ignore basic standards of decorum and professionalism.

Police misconduct creates barriers between officers and the communities they serve, especially low-income neighborhoods of color. It erodes public confidence and impedes cooperation with police investigations.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups regularly receive complaints about officers being rude and unnecessarily aggressive. People routinely complain of officers using profanity, insults, epithets and slurs.

More troubling are reports of excessive force while making arrests, even after individuals are in handcuffs. Officers reportedly use batons and tasers without justification, seize and damage personal property without reason, and subject people to warrantless and intrusive searches. These unjust practices run counter to police policy and training.

At the same time, residents have no faith that reporting misconduct will result in any accountability. Many believe (from experience) that they will be treated in a demeaning and dismissive manner, or fear that reporting misconduct will only trigger retaliation.

Timely and thorough investigations of complaints, and meaningful discipline of officers found guilty of misconduct are very important. But these come long after the fact. Supervising officers should be confronting incidents as they occur, not days or weeks later.

Early warning systems contribute to effective accountability, but technology and data analysis alone cannot change a culture of misconduct. Lasting change depends on articulating and enforcing clear professional standards on a daily basis — peer to peer, supervisor to patrol. Officers must be trained to abide by professional standards — and face stiff consequences if they fail to do so. This process begins at the police academy, but must be reinforced continually.

Strong civilian oversight is also essential. Sadly, the city’s Citizen Review Board has failed in this mission, with little support from the mayor’s office or the Police Department, and little or no oversight from the Common Council.

Your article stated that “the city has established a panel to look at revamping the Citizen Review Board.” But it was established by the Common Council, spurred by the vision and leadership of Councilor Pam Hunter, current chair of the Public Safety Committee.

I am on the advisory committee that is making slow but significant progress. I am disappointed that Fowler rarely attends committee meetings and has not designated a representative. Frustratingly few councilors observe the process, and the mayor’s representative has already criticized the committee’s work.

CRB legislation has serious implications for public safety, and committee members are taking great care with revisions. Success depends on more city legislators and residents becoming engaged.

The committee’s next meetings are scheduled for Oct. 12 and Oct. 26, both at 5:30 p.m. in the Common Council chamber.

Barrie Gewanter, Director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union

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