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Law enforcement officials in Seneca say police reform process was positive experience

Seneca County Sheriff Tim Luce and Undersheriff John Cleere say that working with the community on a police reform plan, as directed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year, was rewarding as much as it was refreshing. The two viewed it as an opportunity to get better, be more accountable to the public, and address areas of concerns for residents.

“It’s been an opportunity to get better, and that’s what we want to do,” Sheriff Tim Luce said of the plan.

Undersheriff John Cleere worked extensively with Sheriff Luce on the final plan. He called it enjoyable and productive for all parties involved. “It was gratifying to interact with the public in a positive, problem solving manner,” he recalled of the process. “It was also eye opening to realize that the focus of the national media is not necessarily the focus of Seneca County citizens.” He says that most felt law enforcement in Seneca was professional and courteous. “We plan to continue the public forum process at least annually,” he added.

Cleere says the process for identifying reforms could be boiled down by identifying three questions: What was most asked for by the public? What did they do well? What could they improve on? “The Governor’s executive order precipitated some of the honing down by its mandatory subjects to address,” he explained. “Implementable concepts had to meet three criteria: Be affordable, effective, and realistic.”

The public engagement sessions also revealed that community policing is central to how law enforcement in Seneca County engage. “Community Policing is key,” Cleere said. “Seneca County Citizens want it and expect it. Communication is also key. Citizens want to know and understand what we do and why. They seem to want to know our Officers better.”

Cleere says that the sheriff’s office has been thinking about ways to engage mental health professionals for years. “Five years ago the Sheriff and I agreed that mental health partnerships were the future of law enforcement,” he said. “We have fostered and built upon that partnership ever since. We have implemented CIT training for Officers, the ipad counselor contact program and CPEP responding to a scene when appropriate.”

To that end, Cleere noted that technology is also crucial. “Law enforcement needs to embrace technology like drones, computer forensics, and cell phone forensics,” he added. “Today’s police officer is expected to be more than an enforcer, they are expected to be problem solvers and guardians.”

As for the prospect of de-funding police, Cleere says it has to be more nuanced than that because responding to emergent situations is complex. “We believe that the idea of taking funds away from Law Enforcement to fund more mental health programs is not a viable plan,” he continued. “Police are first responders and the true nature of a call is not always known until an Officer gets there figures out what’s going on and makes the scene safe. Most Police Departments are minimally staffed and just filling shifts can be a challenge.”

To those who feel like de-funding is the answer, Cleere posed a question: “Most of our budget is personnel. What would we de-fund? Officers on the street? Training? Equipment?”

He says ‘meaningful reform’ will require the preservation of all three, and the addition of meaningful resources spent in mental health and social services overall. “In a perfect world we should be spending more money on police training- not less,” Cleere continued. “Officers routinely respond now with mental health workers and other social workers to guarantee their safety. Police are still a primary response to pick-up and transport mental health commitments to treatment facilities.”

To address this problem, Cleere and Luce say they want to see the state step up. “It’s a state level problem,” they said. “The state has cut mental health services and funding over the years.” They pointed to the closure of Willard State Hospital, which happened several decades ago now. “When Willard and other facilities like it were closed the people who were once treated there mainstreamed into the public without proper treatment options. Many had a hard time adapting. Jails became an end result.”

This week, Luce will present the plan to the Seneca County Board of Supervisors.