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January 10, 2021 - 1:24pm

Stakeholder group moves beyond governor's edict, plans ongoing police and community dialogue

The Batavia Police Collaboration Advisory Stakeholders Group, formed in response to an executive order from the governor, is nearing the completion of its official task but that won't mean the end of an effort to improve relations between police officers and local residents.

A draft resolution and draft report expected to go to the City Council in a few weeks for approval says the city meets all of the state's requirements on a variety of areas the group needed to review, but it also says there will be efforts to increase communication between the Police Department and residents both broadly and individually.

That outcome wasn't explicitly called for in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order, which was intended to bring community members, local leaders and police officials together to discuss and review policies related to use of force, arrest, de-escalation, dealing with mental health issues, and how police officers are hired and fired.

Interim City Manager Rachel Tabelski said at Thursday's group meeting that she was impressed with how the group conducted its business.

"We came together because there was an executive order passed but I think and I'm really proud of this group," Tabelski said. "We've taken it beyond the executive order that we've looked at, the part we got through, all the policies we've got through, all the procedures that we felt that those were up to date, in my opinion, and that they were kept up to date and then we talked about the community and engagement. So the plan really moves us into strategies of community engagement and strategies of increased interaction with our community."

There's already been one focus group meeting -- members of the stakeholders' group, some other community members, and police leaders -- focused on issues related to interactions between police officers and people of color in the community. It's expected there will be other similar meetings. 

Chief Shawn Heubusch shared a preview of an app and a website he said will help the department communicate with the public.

There's strong support, too, for increased foot patrols, community events, and the development of personal relationships between officers and community members.

Thursday's meeting started with a review of a recent survey of residents about community and police relations.

Survey respondents seemed to generally have a favorable view of Batavia PD.  

About a third of the respondents indicated that their last interaction with the department was at a community event. Almost 80 percent rated their interaction with police officers as being professional or very professional, and only 8 percent deemed the interaction was unprofessional and or very unprofessional. 

"Interestingly enough, I was able to dive into that question a little bit," Heubusch said. "As you can see, the respondents who indicated that they were arrested by the department, every single one of those respondents stated that the officers treated them very professionally. I was very proud of that fact just to see, even though it's somebody that we dealt with, unfortunately, in a negative light or had a bad day for them, they still rated the department as very professional."

Respondents said the presence of police officers in their neighborhoods makes them feel safer and said the top three priorities for police should be engaging with the community, assigning more officers to work with youth, and assigning more resources to help people with substance abuse issues.

"I kind of alluded to the fact that the people responding to this survey want to see the officers out of the cars walking the beat, more bicycle patrols," Heubusch said. "They want to see their faces more. They want to have more personal interactions. And that's something that we talked about at the focus group, as well as having those personal interactions with the officers, aside from just the response to a call."

There is a lot of interest among group members for officers to be better equipped to deal with mental health issues, either their training, the ready availability of specialists, or officers on duty with that specific responsibility. 

There are officers who currently specialize in responding to mental health situations, Heubusch said, and there is also a group of civilians who are mental health specialists who assist in mental health situations. There is an effort underway in both areas to expand these programs.

"This (program) gives (officers) that added training to de-escalate and really intervene in those crisis mental health crisis situations," Heubusch said. "There's curriculum in the state right now that will certify you as a crisis intervention officer if you go through a certain number of hours of the training. It's a very competitive process. We were lucky enough to put three officers through that training a few years back with a grant that the county received."

The draft resolution and report have not been released to the public yet, but the video below contains a discussion of it and much of it is displayed on the computer screen used during the Zoom call.

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