Damon Maher (standing,left) addressing questions to Westchester County Police Sergeant Amery Bernhardt (seated, far right, partially obscured) at New Rochelle City Hall on March 27, 2019
NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Talk of the Sound has assembled as much as we could of the communications pertaining to the controversy over an exchange between Sergeant Amery Bernhardt and District 10 County Legislator Damon Maher who represents New Rochelle during Wednesday’s meeting of the New Rochelle Board of Education Culture and Climate Committee. We ordered it sequentially, editing out extraneous banter and deleting email addresses and phone numbers. The goal was to allow readers to experience the back and forth in narrative form and draw their own conclusions.
This reporter witnesses the exchange and wrote about it here.
From: Bernhardt, Amery
Sent: Thursday, March 28, 2019 11:05 AM
To: Christopher Calabrese
Cc: Stasaitis, Paul A.; Provenzano, James
Subject: New Rochelle School Climate and Culture Committee Meeting
I attended the New Rochelle School Culture and Climate Committee meeting on 3/27. I provided an overview of our School Resource Officer program including the contracted school districts and the training that our officers undergo. There were many questions from committee members regarding examples of how the School Resource Officer (SRO) interacts with students. Some concerns involved the presence of firearms in the school, officers making an arrest, questioning students, and the use of force.
After the committee asked questions, it was open to the public and several questions were asked by County Legislator Maher. I was disappointed in the approach by Legislator Maher and I believe you should be aware of it. I did my best to answer the questions; however, the questions that were asked by the Legislator were not appropriate for the venue. After he asked me several questions, one of the committee members stepped in and advised, …”that Sgt. Bernhardt was not here to be grilled.” She advised that I was invited as a guest to present on my area of expertise involving school resource officers.
In essence, there were four points made by the legislator when he questioned me. One point was that police records will make it into the hands of Federal agencies such as ICE and lead to the deportation of students who are here illegally. Second, he said I was disingenuous because I said I did not know the demographics of all the schools where we have SROs and that everyone knows the demographics of northern Westchester. Third, the cost of SROs could be better spent on teaching aids to assist in the classroom. Fourth, officers have implicit biases that need to be addressed. For example, the Legislator has an adopted daughter who is black and she is treated differently by law enforcement.
I felt these questions were inappropriately targeted at me and the Legislator could have used other methods to express his concerns to the committee.
If you have any questions or need clarification on anything please let me know.
From: Michael Hagan
Sent: Thursday, March 28, 2019 6:07 PM
To: Boykin, Benjamin
Cc: Cunzio, Margaret; Parker, Catherine; Testa, John; Gleason, Thomas; Calabrese, Christopher; Bernhardt, Amery
Subject: FW: New Rochelle School Climate and Culture Committee Meeting
Please see attached letter regarding a recent interaction between Legislator Maher and Westchester County Police Sgt. Amery Bernhardt. In addition to the letter I have forwarded an email (below) that Sgt. Bernhardt sent to his supervisors. I will make myself available to discuss should you need any further details.
Westchester County Police
From: Boykin, Benjamin
Sent: Friday, March 29, 2019 10:15 AM
To: Maher, Damon; Damon R. Maher
Cc: Catherine Parker
Subject: FW: New Rochelle School Climate and Culture Committee Meeting
Hi Legislator Maher,
Please see the email below from Mike Hagan and the attached letter. This is a very serious matter and I recommend that you take appropriate steps in dealing with this situation.
I suggest that you apologize to Westchester County Police Sgt. Amery Bernhardt.
Westchester County Board of Legislators
Chairman of the Board
Legislator, 5th District
From: Damon R. Maher
Sent: Friday, March 29, 2019 4:48 PM
To: Boykin, Benjamin; Maher, Damon
Cc: Catherine Parker
Subject: RE: New Rochelle School Climate and Culture Committee Meeting
Please forgive me for not getting right back to you on this, but I just returned to my law office here in lower Manhattan.
First of all, I am disappointed that you would ask a colleague to apologize for something without asking that colleague’s perspective on what happened. Secondly, I think we’re getting into dangerous grounds here if a member of a committee having oversight over its jurisdiction’s police department, or any citizen for that matter, is told they shouldn’t pose probing questions about a particular program to the person who runs the program and has been put forward by the department to give a public presentation about it.
With regard to Sgt. Amery Beghardt’s points:
1. The first question I asked was for a show of hands on who had read this front-page feature article, from NYT Sunday Magazine a couple of months ago, about a Long Island SRO’s memo-book notes jumping to conclusions about who were gang members, which notes got into the hands of federal agents to tragic result:
You’ll remember that I had sent that to you as correspondence not long ago, and I trust you read it, but only 2 other people of a total of 25 people in the New Rochelle meeting — a meeting expressly concerning the pros and cons of an SRO program — had read it. I have since sent that link to the School Board President, hopefully for distribution to the whole Committee and Board. My next question was what kind of notes he and his subordinates and supervisors make about their interactions with students and other observations in hallways and lunchrooms, and where those notes end up? How far up the line in the various police depts. and could they go to the feds?
2. I asked that he repeat the 4 school districts where the County SROs are so far (North Salem, Somers etc) and expressed surprise that he didn’t know the difference in demographics between those districts and New Rochelle.
3. I asked what salary his SRO people made, for the purpose of comparing how many teachers aides or school social workers we could have instead, assuming we’re trying to properly allocate finite taxpayer funds. He said he didn’t know what his officers make, not even a rough estimate, to which I may have said “Really?”
4. We all have biases. I said different communities and different people may have different views of the police and expressed that my black child has a different view of the police, drawn from experience as well as the news and common culture, from that of my white children. I asked whether there was sensitivity and training around that. The sergeant was eager to say, Yes we have a cultural sensitivity component of our training and I suggested specifically “implicit bias” training as well. Incidentally, when the police academy spokesman came to committee a few weeks ago, he seemed excited to talk about getting an Implicit Bias facilitator as part of training for all recruits from all communities in Westchester. We talked afterward and I gave him a name, and he said thanks.
5. I’m sorry that Sgt. Berghardt felt personally “targeted.” As I have certainly found out in my first year in public service, when you step in front of an audience as a spokesperson for a part of the Government or for a particular Government program, you’re susceptible to tough questions from the citizenry, and maybe from other public officials, and maybe you develop a thick skin and maybe you don’t.
Personally, I thought the sergeant had a nice (though corny) sense of humor and was quite likable. I even said, You seem to be a nice, reasonable, common-sense guy, but how do we know what is being done by other guys, in the schools and with the “information” they pick up there? That’s how we got into the federal question after I ascertained that only two other people in the room — and not he or the other SRO presenter (from White Plains school district) — had even heard of the article linked above. Maybe I had a lawyerly tone with the sergeant. Not much I can do about that after 38 years in practice, but a seasoned cop should be experienced at handling that. If there’s a tape, I would like to watch it to determine how my approach could have been less stressful for the sergeant.
In sum, I think that a walk-back on this situation, if any, would involve your retracting the email you have sent to me and, if you wish, reviewing “my side” with the police people. Either way, please let me know by reply email, also letting me know at the time how your follow-up conversation with Tim Idoni went per our phone call over a week ago. I had been awaiting your further take on that Idoni matter, which remains somewhat distressing to me.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Maher added this note to explain the reference to Tim Idoni:
Here’s the full email chain. I sent this to the press, minus the end of the email to Ben about Tim Idoni, County Clerk and former Mayor of New Rochelle, with whom Ben spoke two weeks ago allegedly trying to dump me.
Reached for comment, Idoni denied Maher’s allegation.
“Absolutely no truth to me trying to dump him,” said Idoni. “Why would I care?”
Maher later came back to say “Tim is not the one who wanted me out.” So, he explained the situation in more detail.
Damon Maher says he heard about a conversation, that Westchester County BOL Chairman Benjamin Boykin approached Westchester County Clerk Tim Idoni at a candidate fundraiser to “dump” Maher (not support his nomination).
“I spoke to both about it separately, and their stories didn’t jibe with each other. Ben said he would talk to Tim and get back to me about it last week, but he didn’t. Maybe you should talk to both of them.
“You can ask the two of them which way the conversation went. Again, they gave me two conflicting versions.”
We sent emails to Boykin and (a second one to) Idoni. Neither have replied. We will update the story if/when they do.
Statement by Legislators Testa, Burrows and Cunzio Statement on PBA Complaints:
We have been informed, through a letter from PBA President Mike Hagan, that at the New Rochelle School Culture and Climate Committee meeting on March 27, 2019 Legislator Damon Maher publicly attacked the integrity of Westchester County Police Sgt. Amery Bernhardt. We are shocked to learn of the anti-law enforcement sentiments expressed and the hostility directed at Sgt. Bernhardt by our fellow Legislator.
We are also dismayed that Legislator Maher, who is currently a member of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, would make unfounded and outrageous accusations of racial profiling and abuse of authority directed at our own County Police Personnel.
This type of blatant bias and contempt for Law Enforcement has no place on the Board of Legislators and Legislator Maher has demonstrated that he certainly has no place providing oversight of our County Police on the Public Safety Committee.
Three members of the GOP Caucus of the Board of Legislators; Minority Leader John G. Testa, Minority Whip Gordon Burrows and Public Safety Committee Chairwoman, Margaret Cunzio respectfully request that Chairman Ben Boykin replace Legislator Maher on the Public Safety Committee with a Legislator who has an unbiased and reality based view of the critical and dangerous work that our law enforcement personnel do every day on the streets and in our schools throughout Westchester County.
We also hope that if Legislator Maher intends to continue serving as Westchester County Legislator he will publicly apologize to Sgt. Amery Bernhardt and the rest of our law enforcement personnel for his false accusations and hostility shown at a public meeting.
Statement by Westchester County Executive George Latimer:
I am very proud of the Westchester County Police Department and the Westchester County Department of Corrections. The men and women of those departments are compassionate and professional. Striking the right balance to do what is undoubtable a difficult job.
No one, elected or otherwise, should berate the men and women of those departments. We must always remember that those men and women selflessly serve our County. There is a proper time and place for those in office to discuss public departmental policies, and that is in the legislative and governmental forums.
From: Robert Cox
Sent: Friday, March 29, 2019 5:42 PM
To: Damon R. Maher
Subject: Follow up
As you will recall I was present for the public comment period of the Culture & Climate Committee meeting of the New Rochelle Board of Education.
Q. What brought you to that meeting on Wednesday?
Q. You were taking issue with the cop who was there. I sort of know already but in your own words what were your concerns that day.
Publisher and Managing Editor
Talk of the Sound
From: Damon R. Maher
Date: Mar 29, 2019, 6:14 PM
To: Robert Cox
Subject: Re: Follow up
1. I was invited by my friend Yolanda Valencia, whom I’ve known for years via youth soccer and re-connected with when I joined the Board of Legislators. She was working for Jim Maisano as Personal Legislative Aide, and now for Terry Clements. She has a child at NRHS and has been active on the committee formed after last year’s incidents. Ocassionally, and cordially, she and I have been debating the pros and cons of full-time police in schools — she for, me against — and she wanted me to hear both sides, so I agreed to attend. As what, I don’t know. Concerned citizen or public official? It wasn’t made clear.
2. There’s a whole email chain, including one from me, setting out everybody’s opinion of what I was doing there and what my agenda was… Basically, some people don’t like the questions I ask and/or my tone when I ask them.
Maher did send the email exchange which is the basis for much but not all of the above, and some of it was obtained from multiple sources.