During Thursday’s Geneva City Council meeting Councilor Ken Camera (Ward 4) appeared to disclose potentially confidential personnel information during a live public meeting that was airing on YouTube.
Towards the end of the meeting, the issue of Council being blamed for voting to eliminate two probationary police officer positions as part of the 2021 budget process came up. Council engaged in a lengthy discussion on the issue. Towards the end of the discussion Camera called on City staff to simply inform the public that the probationary police officers had been terminated because they had failed the training program and had validated complaints against them. Camera was immediately cut off by City Manager Sage Gerling and Mayor Steve Valentino because Camera was violating personnel confidentiality rules. Prior to Camera’s disclosure, Gerling had asked the Council to forgo any discussion of the officers’ status until she could consult legal counsel regarding the issue. Fingerlakes1 has reached out to Gerling and Valentino seeking their comments on whether or not Camera’s disclosures are accurate but as of the time of publication Gerling and Valentino had been unable to respond.
Thursday Council was scheduled to meet regarding the comments received during the January 20, 2021 Police Review Board (PRB) Public Law Public Hearing. Although Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2) tried to argue that any Councilor could make amendments to segments of the law that had previously been amended and voted on without being a member of the prevailing party, no amendments were offered. Valentino indicated that since there were no amendments, Public Law 1-2021 would be put on the agenda for the February 3, 2021, Council meeting for consideration. It appears that amendments could still potentially be offered at that meeting.
Valentino also informed Council that, based on comments made at the public hearing, the City had received legal advice that a “Mandatory Referendum” is not required for Public Law 1-2021. Valentino further stated that the legal advice recommended that the City not pursue a referendum.
Geneva residents turned out in large numbers on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, to present their views at the PRB Public Hearing. Those opposed to the PRB turned out in force. 68 of the 112 residents presenting testimony Wednesday opposed the proposal. An additional 44 residents testified in support of the PRB and remained committed that Geneva needed an independent police review entity.
Many of those opposed to the PRB presented testimony via written letters that were read for the record. A majority of the residents presenting testimony in support of a PRB appeared in-person via Zoom.
The arguments against the PRB proposal remained consistent with those that opponents had previously submitted. Opponents previous refrain of “we don’t want it, we don’t need it, and we can’t afford it” morphed into a new approach with many of the presenters echoing the statement “I am fully opposed to Local Law 1-2021 and the establishment of a police review board of any kind in the City of Geneva. I ask all members of Council to abandon this law in its entirety.”
Many presenters said that the data did not support the establishment of a PRB in Geneva. Rather they often stated that the Geneva Police Department (GPD) and Chief Michael Passalacqua had demonstrated that there are adequate safeguards in place to ensure proper officer conduct. Many residents felt that a PRB would be used to impede the GPD’s work and to intimidate officers. Some residents went as far as to say that they would no longer feel safe in Geneva if the PRB proposal passed.
Residents also expressed concerns regarding the PRB’s composition and the lack of training requirements. Some residents felt that the PRB should not exclude from potential membership members of law enforcement and their families. Residents also felt the PRB would be biased against the GPD because convicted felons could serve on the Board. Some individuals expressed concerns that the proposed Public Law did not have specific training requirements to familiarize Board members with policing practices.
Those opposed to the PRB also complained that the City cannot afford the Board. Many referenced the financial crisis that had been created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many were also concerned that the City would spend money on a PRB when they had already laid off two probationary police officers who the City had paid significant money to train. Some residents also thought it was not appropriate to fund a PRB when the GPD had unfilled vacant positions and was understaffed. Others also referenced how Council had voted to reduce the Department’s ammunition training budget. Finally, many presenters were concerned that the Public Law did not actually provide a budget for the PRB, which they felt was essentially giving the Board an open checkbook for the first year.
Council also learned that a petition is circulating that calls on Council to abandon the PRB public law entirely. Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large) indicated that the petition has over 300 signatures.
Council also heard that the Police Officers’ Union remains opposed to the PRB. The Union went as far as to state that the PRB Public Law should be subject to a mandatory referendum if it is approved by Council. The Union also was concerned that the PRB violates officers’ contractual rights regarding discipline.
Many of the presenters supporting the PRB also presented similar arguments that had been presented at earlier meetings. The most prevalent arguments were that a PRB would increase GPD transparency and accountability. Presenters felt that transparency and accountability were particularly important because of incidents such as the shooting death of William Corey Jackson and the incident where Officer Jack Montesanto was charged with choking a woman who was in custody at the Geneva Public Safety Building. Presenters believed that these and other incidents show a history of abusive conduct toward minority and marginalized citizens of Geneva by the GPD. Some presenters argued that a PRB could detect warning signs of potential problem officers before the situation escalated to the officer’s conduct resulting in a citizen’s death or injury.
Supporters of the PRB also argued that a PRB was necessary to address racial inequities in policing and to ensure that all residents feel safe in Geneva. Presenters also felt that it was essential to exclude officers and their families from Board membership to keep the Board independent and unbiased.
Some presenters expressed frustration regarding why some Genevans seem to be afraid of accountability. Some even went as far as to argue that the PRB would benefit the GPD by giving it a means of finding its “bad apples” and giving wrongly accused officers an avenue to clear their names. Many presenters felt that a PRB could ultimately even improve the relationship between the GPD and the community and the community would come to trust the GPD more.
Supporters also frequently referenced the national narrative occurring on policing citing such incidents as the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and even the fact that police officers are being investigated for participating in the January 6, 2021, riots at the Capitol in Washington D.C.
Ultimately those who supported the PRB called on Council to enact the PRB Public Law without delay. Many repeated the statement that “justice delayed is justice denied and accountability delayed is accountability denied.”
Although this Public Hearing was much more civil than some meetings about the PRB, the underlying conflict that has divided the Council and City residents remained just under the surface. Those opposed to the proposed PRB referenced the proposal being brought by a small minority of the Council and community who are anti-police because of personal political agendas. Some continued to link the proposal specifically to academics at Hobart and William Smith College. While those supporting the PRB Public Law felt the opposition was spreading misinformation about the proposal and were part of Geneva’s “Good Old Boy” network. Supporters also felt that the Police Officers Union had become too powerful and was exerting too much control over the process.
The Council is now scheduled to vote on the PRB Public Law at its regular meeting on February 3, 2021, unless substantial amendments are made that would require a third public hearing.