Interaction Within Schools Focus of Mt. Pleasant Police Reform Discussion

The committee reviewing Mount Pleasant’s police policies and procedures last week primarily focused on improving the relationship with the two residential treatment facilities for youths and whether the presence of police in public schools is beneficial.

Police Chief Paul Oliva led the discussion for the nearly two-hour Police Reform Committee meeting, where he initially provided an overview of the department and the town’s demographic information before engaging with committee members. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order last June that requires every governmental entity in the states that oversees a police department to review its practices.

Currently, there are 46 officers for more than 43,000 residents, Mount Pleasant’s population as of the 2010 Census. It is less than the 48 officers employed by the town through much of the 1960s and ‘70s, Oliva said.

About 84 percent of town residents are white, just over 5 percent are Black, 3.26 percent are Asian and 5 percent are from other races. Native Americans and Pacific Islanders each comprise a fraction of 1 percent. Oliva said there are currently no Black officers, although there are some officers of mixed races. However, the department does not ask for a job candidate’s racial background. There are currently three women officers.

Oliva said he tells his officers it’s critical for them to have relationships with all segments of the community.

“I tell them we’re in a customer service business, and that’s what we do,” he said. “We’re there to help people and help the community out, and you are not going to see them on their greatest days sometimes, but you have to have patience and it’s customer service.”

In recent years, the two residential facilities for youths in town, the Pleasantville Cottage School and Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, have attracted much attention with repeated incidents and calls for police to report to the campus.

Margarita Carson, the director of security at the JCCA campus who was standing in last week for committee member Richard Hucke, the campus director, said there has been significant progress in improving the understanding between the residents, staff and the police. The officers that have responded to the schools have exhibited professionalism and great care, Carson said.

She reminded Oliva, Supervisor Carl Fulgenzi and the 11 other committee members that 85 to 90 percent of the calls to the campus are psychiatric and not criminal emergencies. Much of the schools’ population has experienced serious trauma in their lives and are youths of color, who come from communities that have not had a lot of confidence in law enforcement, Carson said.

“Many of our youths have had traumatic experiences, but they come from communities, lower income communities that have not had experience with police officers,” she said. “We are still battling a systemic racist system that has policies and procedures that really impact our ability to be successful in caring for the kids.”

Town resident and committee member Kelsey Padgett questioned whether having police officers visit public schools on a regular basis is beneficial.

“To me, it seems like the reason why we’re having these meetings is that the police are not trusted by certain parts of every town and every city, and that young people and people of color, and so what do we want to do to help change that and I don’t know that cops being in your school helps that,” Padgett said.

Oliva mentioned that his department not only wants a strong relationship with teachers and administrators but the students as well. The police seek to avoid ushering a student out of the building in handcuffs.

There is also still the concern of school shootings.

“The best way, I think, to prevent a school shooting is to be preventative and have a feel for the student population and have the ability for another student to say, ‘Hey, my friend is saying stuff or this kid is saying stuff, I don’t know what to do,’ and to have that outlet so they feel comfortable enough with the police that they can actually go to them and say something,” Oliva said.

Committee member Clare Degnan, a representative of the Legal Aid Society of Westchester, suggested the town explore implicit bias training. Oftentimes, a person isn’t aware they have implicit biases.

“We all have implicit biases, which affects how we all interact with everyone and how we deal with whomever we are dealing with,” Degnan said.

Carson, who lives on the JCCA campus, said while the Mount Pleasant police have been very respectful, as a woman of color with a Black son, she has had to educate him on how respond to police.

“I’m very concerned for his safety at times being in the community, and there are conversations that I have to have with my son that some people will never have to have with their kids,” she said.

That includes making sure he doesn’t wear a hood or asks permission to move, Carson said.

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