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Officials scramble to pin down police reform meeting logistics following pivot to online-only

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — The city’s police reform process has run up against pandemic restrictions as organizers scramble to nail down last-minute logistical challenges ahead of next week’s launch event.

The steering committee guiding the process has decided to go to a virtual-only format.

Yet shifting to online-only has presented unresolved questions over how to balance public safety with transparency and ensure the meetings are accessible to the public.

It remains unclear if or how the meetings will be broadcast and what mechanisms will be put in place for public comment and engagement for those not preapproved to sit in on the panel discussions.

Officials guiding the Schenectady Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative are expected to meet again Monday ahead of the Oct. 21 launch event in an attempt to solve unresolved questions.

The panel will conduct nine meetings over two weeks.

Organizers had initially eyed a hybrid model, using Proctors for in-person meetings while holding some sessions online.

But those prospects were scrapped after steering committee members weighed the complexities of ensuring a sanitary and socially-distanced environment at their meeting on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, it’s just the world we’re living in right now,” said city Police Chief Eric Clifford on the pandemic-induced complexities.

The events are not designed to be typical community forums or town hall-type sessions in which people lob questions to participants, but are rather moderated panel discussions in which pre-selected representatives cultivated from five different sectors offer feedback on policing.

Those sectors include neighborhood associations, business representatives, community/civic organizations, youth and education groups and public safety officials.

Each organization selected two people to participate in the discussions, which will be moderated by Jason Benitez, vice president of talent and inclusion at the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce.

Between 12 and 15 people are expected to participate in each discussion, which will be attended by law enforcement officials, including city and state police, as well officials from the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety in Albany.

Organizers hope to retain some elements of pre-pandemic public meetings.

The committee tentatively decided to put all participants for the day’s panel together in a room and link them to Benitez via teleconferencing software, likely Webex (although officials are also exploring Zoom).

But it’s undecided how the proceedings will be broadcast to the general public, and how they can provide comment.

Organizers briefly discussed how much access the general public should be granted.

Clifford said some participants may be less open if they know they were being recorded, such as members of the business community.

“If you want honest conversation, that’s something we have to think about,” Clifford said.

Some members expressed concerns over possible rollbacks to public access.

Imam Genghis Khan said the city should be transparent as possible.

“There’s an inevitability that the contents of the meeting will be made available at one point or another,” Khan said. “That’s one of the core elements of transparency, right?”

Rev. Dustin Wright called for a livestream — but with conditions.

“I think the general public should view — not comment on — livestreams of these sessions,” Wright said.

Committee members left the meeting without reaching a consensus.

The state released a 139-page guidebook to help localities navigate the process, which is mandatory in order to receive state funding.

The book calls for localities to make planning and deliberation meetings public, which the city has done by including The Daily Gazette in on calls.

Yet the state offers little in the way of additional guidance when it comes to the openness of the core discussions that all parties agree are likely at times to be raw and contentious.

Localities are also encouraged to:

  • Poll and survey the public for their views on specific issues, if feasible.
  • Provide periodic updates as the planning process moves forward.
  • Engage local media.
  • Make all research materials public.
  • Have a plan to incorporate public comment feedback in the final plan.

Localities across the state have been using teleconferencing software to conduct remote meetings, including the City Council, which uses Webex, software that is simultaneously livestreamed on YouTube and broadcast on Spectrum and Verizon Fios.

However, the process has occasionally been marred by technical problems, and the city has acknowledged two steering committee meetings are no longer available after one session was “lost” and another saved, but without audio.

Khan on Wednesday asked the city to post all planning sessions on its website.

When it comes to the actual structure of the panel discussions, Benitez said he is working with a sub-group to draft a list of standard questions to ask members in order to provide a degree of consistency.

The two-hour events would also include time for open dialogue.

City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield wondered if the process was becoming too tightly-controlled.

“And that’s what a lot of people have concerns about already,” Porterfield said.

Members also batted around alternatives for accepting written public comment; if they can be submitted anonymously; if viewers can submit comments through Webex, and if hosts would be given the ability to shut off mics and cameras for anyone seeking to digitally disrupt the discussions.

Benitez acknowledged there will be unknowns that participants will have to navigate.

“I hope people come to the process with some level of confidence and be able to participate passionately and productively,” Benitez said.

The kickoff event is slated for Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.

Clifford will give a brief overview of the Schenectady Police Department, while officials and steering committee members have been invited to offer brief comments outlining the process.

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