New Rochelle Community-Police Partnership Board is Not a Path Towards Transparency and Accountability

Written By: Robert Cox

Last night was the start of the so-called Listening Tour of the New Rochelle Community-Police Partnership Board.

On April 21, 2021, Mayor Noam Bramson described the Board this way:

In March (2021), the New Rochelle City Council adopted a Policing Reform and Collaborative Plan, intended to enhance the quality, transparency and fairness of law enforcement practices in New Rochelle, while also providing our Police Department with the support and tools necessary to discharge its vital mission. The Plan contains multiple components and recommendations, including the creation of a thirteen-member Community-Police Partnership Board (CPPB).

Without transparency, quality and fairness cannot be measured, so the fulcrum on which the CPPB rests is transparency.

Many proponents of the CPPB, including a number of attendees last night, used the phrase “transparency and accountability” as something between a mantra and an aspiration for the CPPB,

Without transparency, there is no way to judge the department as an organization or its individual members from the newest rookie on the force to senior command or departmental policies and procedures so without transparency there can be no accountability.

In short, any reform of the police department begins and ends with transparency.

The first CPPB listening tour event was a heavily scripted event dominated by one voice, Minister Mark McLean, President of the NAACP New Rochelle Branch. The “listening” was primarily those in attendance listening to McLean not the CPPB listening to the community.

The meeting began by coming to a screening halt.

A lengthy questioneer, “Community Survey on Public Safety and Law Enforcement” created by the U.S. Department of Justice was handed out to members of the community. As a dozen CPPB members watched, two dozen people spent about 15-20 minutes answering 30 multiple choice questions on the 5 minute survey which promised complete confidentiality but required, as question one, for the respondents to provide their email address. When asked why, McLean said the CPPB wanted to have a “robust communication channel” as if collecting personal emails as part of a supposedly confidential survey was a good way to do that.

Having called for a “frank discussion” McLean proceeded to curtail discussion. Instead, McLean read from a list of scripted questions and took issue with anyone who did not respond to the questions as he intended.

At no point did McLean ask the audience what they wanted to talk about.

There were no preliminary remarks explaining the purpose of the CPPB beyond introducing its members who were in attendance. There was no explanation of the purpose of undertaking a listening tour other than “we want to hear what you have to say” which seemed incongruous given (1) the format of McLean asking every question and responding to every answer while CPPB members for the most part sat impassively, expressionless, disengaged behind their required COVID masks; and (2) there appeared to be no consistent effort to document what attendees had to say. For a time, NRPD Captain Neil Reynolds appeared to take notes then stopped. Same for Council Member Yadira Ramos-Herbert. If the CCPB is not documenting what attendees have to say how is that a listening tour?

The two hour meeting consisted of three dozen people sitting on chairs arranged in a circle in the auditorium on the second floor of the Family Life Center at the Bethesda Baptist Church of New Rochelle on Lincoln Avenue. While lip service was paid to making everyone feel welcome, the event began and ended with prayers led by Christian ministers which might make sense to some as the MC was a Christian minister and the event was held at a Christian church. There appeared to have been no consideration that a non-Christian or non-religious person might be uncomfortable at an event billed as a listening tour organized by a board appointed by the City government not an evangelical group.

There was no explanation why a meeting organized by a community-police board needed to take on religious overtones or why that religion was Christianity.

In the exact center of the chair (prayer?) circle, was a microphone on a microphone stand, a perfect metaphor for the event. The microphone was turned off, out of reach, as McLean worked the room with a wireless mic like Phil Donahue. If attendees did respond to his questions, McLean immediately took the microphone away then either characterized their response to suit his own narrative or disputed the responses, always arrogating the last word to himself.

When McLean claimed that one speaker was saying something similar to another speaker and that other speaker rejected McLean’s characterization, McLean repeatedly sought to justify his intent in attempting to characterize that person’s remarks — half a dozen times.

When a speaker expressed his view that McLean’s questions were limiting, boxing in the responses of attendees, McLean attempted to justify the questions.

The CCPB Listening Tour was little more than the Minister Mark McLean Show where he asked a question and then passed judgement on the answer.

I made a few remarks myself but as they appeared to be unwelcome I did not follow up. I am a big talker so if I felt uncomfortable I suspect I was not alone.

I expressed my view that I do not have confidence that municipal committees like the CCPB are effective. Their track record is poor, in particular, with committees dominated by people who one way or another rely on money from the City, either as employees, or tax breaks for real estate deals, or funding for pet projects or organizations they support. Police reform requires rocking the boat and I did not sense anyone on the CCPB was a boat rocker.

A committee co-chaired by the Police Commissioner is not likely to produce the level of transparency required to achieve police reform under the best of circumstances and the circumstances with transparency and New Rochelle police are not close to the best.

Having done it for going on 14 years, I can say without fear of contradiction that no one in the room last night had anything approaching my level of experience the New Rochelle Police Department on issues of transparency especially over the past year.

Since June 12, 2020 when Governor Andrew Cuomo repealed 50a, the law that made disciplinary records for first responders and members of law enforcement confidential, I have sought to obtain every disciplinary record for every member of the department, current or retired, back to the creation of the department more than a century ago. In that effort I have been lied to, stonewalled, misled and slow-walked by the NRPD.

Under the New York State Freedom of Information Law, a requestor is entitled to receive back records in less than a month. It has been more than a year and the NRPD is less than halfway done filling my request. They are not producing the disciplinary records because they have contempt for the law they are sworn to uphold. It is prima facie evidence of their utter disregard for transparency.

I do have some records and because I have them the public knows things they would otherwise not know.

They know because of my efforts to force transparency on the NRPD that the narrative put forth on the events leading up to the traffic stop that resulted in the shooting death of Kamal Flowers on June 5 was fabricated – a complete lie from start to finish.

They know because of my efforts to force transparency on the NRPD that by June 2020 PO Alec McKenna had accrued one of the worst disciplinary records in the history of the NRPD in just 5 years as a police officer. That in the year before he killed Kamal Flowers following a bogus traffic stop, McKenna had been cited for 158 violations of departmental policy, most of them related to traffic stops. That despite this, on the night he killed Flowers, McKenna was a shift training officer.

They know because of my efforts to force transparency on the NRPD that Michael Vaccaro, who repeatedly punched a black suspect, Malik Fogg, in the head, had 17 Internal Affairs investigations and despite that was promoted to Detective.

The point being is that if the transparency nut is not cracked, the public will not know about the gross misconduct by these sorts of officers.

The path to reform rests squarely with Senior Command of the New Rochelle Police Department. Until they are willing to be transparent with disciplinary records the public cannot ask why officers like Vaccaro or McKenna remain on the job.

If the NRPD were genuinely interested in reform they would not need the death of George Floyd or Kamal Flowers or an Executive Order from the Governor to get started. What they would do is first fire the bad officers, come clean on their lies at the June 6, 2020 press conference on the death of Kamal Flowers, turn over all the disciplinary records — and only then seek input from the community

Until that happens the New Rochelle Community-Police Partnership Board is a carnival sideshow and not an effective means of deliver transparency and accountability in an attempt to bring about police reform.