City of Batavia Police Chief Shawn Heubusch said he is encouraged by the results of a survey designed to gauge the community’s perception of his department and is looking forward to expanding the work of the Batavia Police Collaboration Advisory Stakeholder Group.
Speaking at Monday night’s City Council meeting, Heubusch shared highlights of the draft report generated as a result of seven meetings of the advisory group, which was formed last summer in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 203 on community policing reform.
The draft of the plan, which ultimately will be submitted to the New York State Office of Management and Budget, will be available for public viewing and input on the City of Batavia’s website for about 30 days. Council is expected to consider the plan, including any updates, at its March 8 Business meeting.
Heubusch said he felt “very proud” about the response to the survey question, “When I seen an officer how do I feel?,” as the overwhelming majority indicated that seeing an officer made them feel safer and that they would be treated fairly.
He said the 14-question survey drew 828 responses, with 77 percent of the respondents stating that they lived in Batavia and 87 percent indicating that they were white. Fifty-eight percent were over the age of 45 and 56 percent were female.
The chief also said it was “very reassuring” that 81 percent of the respondents said that their opinion of the Batavia PD has not changed because of national events.
“Remember, when we started this it was right after all of the tumultuous activity that took place across the country,” Heubusch said.
He also pointed out that 80 percent said officers acted professionally/very professionally during an interaction, with 7 percent offering no opinion and 3 percent stating officers were unprofessional/very unprofessional.
“Eight respondents said their last interaction was due to an arrest and five of those respondents indicated the department was professional or very professional,” he added.
Concerning recommendations going forward, Heubusch said the top two answers to the question, “What should the Batavia PD do?” were to provide more training and resources for the officers on bias based policing and do more to address vehicle and pedestrian safety.
“Number two was to assign more resources to assist those with substance abuse issues, number three was to assign more resources to assist youth and number four was to engage more with the community,” he reported.
Heubusch said he is especially pleased with the fact that a focus group of minority residents has been established and will continue to meet on a regular basis.
“We had one meeting and it was extremely productive, and we are committed to continuing (open dialogue), he said, noting that several members of the minority community were part of the 28-member advisory group.
He said the committee learned about policies, procedures and training, including use of force, bias based policing, basic course for police, Article 35, body worn cameras and de-escalation training.
“With Article 35, once we placed someone under arrest, they can’t resist,” Heubusch said. “It was actually kind of an eye-opening moment for us. Several people in the group didn’t realize that when a police officer says you’re under arrest, that was it.”
Heubusch outlined other areas that the agency plans to begin or re-emphasize:
Trainings such as implicit bias and de-escalation, as well as mental health and crisis intervention.
“We plan to collaborate more with Genesee County Mental Health and there also is a larger discussion with other law enforcement agencies for some type of response service,” he said.
Community Engagement/Community Policing, including more foot and bicycle patrols, and establishing a community liaison service.
Transparency/data sharing, specifically posting Department of Criminal Justice reports on the city’s website and starting a Crime Watch program on social media to “get information out in a much smoother fashion than our current website.”
Accreditation, with the hope of initial accreditation later this year and then reaccreditation every three to five years.
Civil Service reform, with the goal of revamping a system that Heubusch said is antiquated.
“It doesn’t allow you to hire the best candidate at times, unfortunately,” he said, adding that there is a discussion across the state to reform the Civil Service hiring process. He added that the department is committed to hiring local candidates.
Special programs: specifically contracting with the Batavia City School District for a school resource officer; having a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer in schools; starting a citizens’ police academy and an officer wellness program.
Heubusch said it is a priority to continue to participate in National Night Out and as many other city and private outreach events as possible.
Members of Batavia Police Advisory Collaboration Stakeholder Group are ready to keep the momentum going.
Their Gov. Andrew Cuomo-assigned task completed, members last night said they felt like some good things had been accomplished for the community and they want to keep going, if not in the group's current form, at least in focus groups and through its participation in police-related committees.
"I don't think the conversation ends here," said Victor Thomas, a member of the group and a member of the Just Kings Social Club. "Like I said earlier, with the chief and assistant chief, these are both people that want to have this conversation with or without this group. They went above and beyond, like I said, to form other groups and actually hear the community's voice. So I don't think this is something that's just going to stop here because Cuomo said we had to do this. We actually have a police chief and assistant9 chief that care about their community. So that's huge."
Chief Shawn Heubush said there is no plan for the conversation to stop.
"One of the things that we talked about is actually inviting the community to our policing community policing meeting because it's usually an internal-facing meeting where we try to come up with ways to integrate ourselves into the community," Heubusch said. "We realized, as Detective (Matthew) Wojtaszek had mentioned that we don't have any citizens on this committee. Why don't we have a citizen or two on this committee to help us in getting into the areas that we need to get into and focusing on those areas? So that would be something that I would see to try to keep this conversation going, inviting more people to talk to those types of functions.
"I really look forward to a citizens' police academy. I certainly hope we can make that happen because I think that is a perfect opportunity. You know, just looking at other communities that have done it, a perfect opportunity for us to really serve the public a lot better and have that educational piece that I think we need so, so very badly with our community, the back and forth conversation as well. And the focus group, as Victor mentioned, we're going to keep going with that. I think that's extremely important."
Interim City Manager Rachael Tabelski said she expects the city to make community and police relations part of its regular focus in the future, perhaps adding a review process as part of the budget process.
"It is up to myself and the chief to follow up with counsel on an annual basis to see how this is going and how it's evolved," Tabelski said. "The plan doesn't get finished and put on the shelf, is what I'm trying to say. I think both the chief and I are committed to making sure that we are reviewing this and trying to make this into our strategic priorities that come forward to counsel every single year at budget time as well."
The stakeholder's group was charged, by executive order, by reviewing all relevant police policies and procedures and make recommendations for changes. There were no recommended changes in the area of things like arrest procedures and use of force but committee members expressed a strong interest in improving mental health intervention as well as community-police relationships.
The written plan produced by the committee will be presented to the City Council on Jan. 25 and become available for public review at that time. There will be a public comment period and the council will be asked to approve it and send it to the governor's office, to comply with the executive order, on March 8.
Near the top of the meeting, Pastor Marty Macdonald of City Church started the discussion about how far the city has come in the area of community and police relations, especially in regards to people of color.
"Ten years ago, this meeting would have never happened," Macdonald said. "Not with the people that we have on (the committee). I am so grateful for Victor being in this group. Victor, what would you have thought five years ago if you were to be invited to this?
"I'm on the CJAC (Criminal Justice Advisory Council) committee, too," he added. "They approved Greg Monroe to be a part of the CJAC. To me, this is the essence of what this whole thing is about, that to a degree, our community has been, I'm not certain that it's been deliberate, but it's just been there's been no attention to it and we have put attention to it now. And I think we've moved in an incredibly positive way."
Victor Thomas said he was grateful to see progress made.
"I applaud the chief because, from the beginning, before the march, before any of this came down, he was there," Thomas said. "He was willing to hear concerns. He was there the day of the march and he was willing to hear his community's cry. I think that showed even more, like you saying, like this conversation needs to happen even without the governor. Yeah, the governor passed (this order) down, but we took that and we created another focus group to look deeper in once we didn't get the results that we wanted from a survey.
"It shows what's manifesting," he added. "It shows the growth in Batavia, and I'm just happy to be a part of it. I'm happy to have my thoughts and Greg's thoughts and other minority thoughts actually taken it into consideration and actually put down in this plan. Like my friend was saying in the beginning, yeah, it should stand for everybody, but I'm glad that the focus remained where the focus needed to be. And I'm happy to be a part of that. And I'm happy to continue the focus group."
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.
There isn't much to change in Batavia PD policy, members of Batavia Police Stakeholders Group indicated at their bimonthly meeting on Thursday but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a change in the relationship between the department and the community.
There should be more communication, less misunderstanding, and more personal interaction between police officers and members of the Black community so that both police officers and members of the community see each other as people and not just numbers and uniforms.
The stakeholder's group was formed in response to an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo instructing every municipality with a police department to open a community dialogue about police policies, procedures and practices in an effort to reduce the incidences of police brutality.
There seems to be unanimous agreement on the committee that police brutality isn't an issue in Batavia. Chief Shawn Heubusch was praised for his presentation of the previous meetings outlining police department policies and procedures that already address proper police officer conduct.
No votes were taken, nothing committed being part of the final report that will go to the governor's office after being approved by the City Council, but there was an apparent agreement that some sort of ongoing focus group that would bring to light the concerns of Black residents about police conduct would be formed.
Committee member Anibal Soler Jr., superintendent of Batavia City Schools, said such a focus, however, needs to be constructed in a way that members of the Black community would feel safe to discuss issues. A police presence in the group might chill speech, he indicated.
Nathan Varland, Batavia Housing Authority director, referenced comments made earlier by Brandon Armstrong, a local business owner, and said perhaps a list of such concerns should be made so they can be addressed. He suggested the wider Black community be surveyed to gather other examples.
What Armstrong discussed was the perception -- if not the practice -- of Black residents being pulled over for minor traffic law infractions.
"We have to look at what's happening to people of color here in Batavia," Armstrong said. "It's not on the surface. There are just things that are used against us. There is a certain law, I think it's obstruction of view, if having something hanging from your rearview mirror. I've been pulled over for that for a Glade air freshener. It is illegal, but are they pulling over every single person who has a handicapped or air freshener thing on their rearview mirror? See, those things are used to target people of color to pull them over, to see what they have going on."
He said he's hearing from people visiting his barbershop that the latest tactic is people not using their signal within 50 feet of making a turn.
"People aren't looking at those but I know because I can ride down the street and within two minutes I can see about four people with something hanging from their rearview mirrors and they're not being pulled over," Armstrong said. "You see what I'm saying?"
In response to comments made early in the discussion by Raelene Christian about police being vilified and attacked, Greg Munroe said people misunderstand the concerns Black citizens have about the police.
"We have to stay on task," Munroe said. "Defunding the police does not mean we're not going to have a police department. It doesn't mean that at all. It's just defunding is a scary word. I understand but it's not. What it means is very simple. There are mental health issues that primarily happen in the Black community. Black people are targeted. It seems like they are targeted because they seem not to be understood. If the defunding, or whatever word you want to use, take that and help the police get more resources on how to deal with different situations, so things like what happens in the country do not happen."
There is a lot of misunderstanding, Victor Thomas said, about what Black concerns are about police.
"I just wanted to touch on what Greg was saying about Blacks being misunderstood," Thomas said. "I think that's a big part of it. The police brutality in Batavia doesn't happen as much as the Black people being misunderstood in Batavia."
Matt Wojtaszczyk, a detective with Batavia PD but on the committee representing the Batavia Police Benevolent Association, told members police officers want to know how to do their jobs better and connect better with community members.
"Whenever someone asks us to do an event, we really try to make an effort to do so," Wojtaszczyk said. "What else can we do? What are some other ideas out there? What else can we do to reach our minority communities? What can we do better? Tell us, because I think we really want to. We truly do."
Thomas's answer was: Get to know people.
"It's really a personal thing that has to happen between the Blacks and the police officers," Thomas said. "The police have to show these Blacks that they're not just a number in Batavia. They're not just a sentence getting ready to get slapped down on a judge's desk and sent up the road for years. The Black community feels that way deeply in Batavia."
It's that kind of distrust, Soler noted, that would make a focus group that included police officers potentially less productive. However, he said, both Blacks and police officers, as well as community members, need to work on themselves as well, educate themselves about each other. He suggested a number of documentaries and books both sides could watch or read.
Both Munroe and Soler noted it was kind of eye-opening to hear Heubusch talk at the first meeting about the arrest process and the fact that when a police officer tells someone they're under arrest, the conversation is over. It's time to comply with the officer's orders.
Munroe said he's had the same conversation with members of the Black community since that meeting and they all the same response he had, that they didn't know that.
"One thing that I learned from the chief was, man, once a police officer tells you those things, game over, you have to comply," Soler said. "Once you're told you are being put under arrest, that's it. Our community doesn't understand it. That's work we've got to do in our community of color. Once the police officer's -- 'I'm now placing you under arrest. You can't go. 'Now, wait a minute. Let's talk about it.' It's already too late. To Raelene's point, then you've got to go to court and go through through the process.
"We don't get taught that. We're taught, you know, 'I'm going to fight. I'm going to keep fighting until I can get my say. Then it becomes that we've put our officers sometimes in these really tough positions. But I just want to make sure that our police officers are really checking their own implicit bias in terms of trying to keep themselves educated, trying to understand some of these stories and narratives."
The topic of implicit bias came up several times during the evening's discussion.
The open dialogue started with Christian raising the issue of police being attacked in recent years.
"I'm also concerned with minorities and how they're treated as well," Christian said. "I'm also concerned about how everyone is treated as a whole. But who I'm really concerned with a lot of times as our police officers, they're being vilified. They're being shot execution-style.
In a long opening remark, she added, "The mainstream media doesn't tell you about all the unarmed white men that are shot. It happens. And I'm not saying it's right. And what happened to George Floyd, let me just be clear, was egregious. It was disgusting and despicable. And our police officers, most of them, I would say 99 percent of them agree with what happened to George Floyd was despicable and a disgrace. And Derek Chauvin, the police officer, did that, killed him. And I know he killed him because he did. He deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail and prison period. But I also feel like our police, they're being vilified and our police are being brutalized. Molotov cocktails are being thrown at them. They're being shot at. They're being shot execution-style, and there's no provocation for that. "
Later she added, "There's a broader picture here that, you know, yes, we can address police brutality. Does it happen? Yes. And is it going to continue to happen? Yes."
Her remarks elicited a calm response from several other committee members, among the more pointed from Director of Mental Health Service Lynda Battaglia, "I want to say to that -- this is the entire point of this meeting. It is the entire point of the executive order to end police brutality, so to say. Will it continue? Yes. Is unacceptable. It has to stop."
Munroe said, "This group was put together because of police brutality, period."
After addressing Christian directly, Soler said, "The reality is an implicit bias that many people who don't have a choice of how they look every morning when they wake up (deal with). I think Victor made a good point. Police choose to wear a blue uniform that, you know, historically has been designed to keep order and guidance in a community. Black people just wake up. Unfortunately, their communities are often the most targeted for patrols, for a variety of things to do, commingle with socioeconomic status. And so some of the comments that were made show your implicit bias. You don't really realize it."
W/hen next she had a chance to speak, Christian told Soler she wasn't biased and she took exception to being judged.
"I just want to be real quick and apologize again," Soler said. "If you think I was passing judgment, I was just more commenting on the overall feedback that was provided. So I apologize if you think I made a judgment. You're right, I don't know you. I was just trying to comment on this. I want to make sure we're clear that I'm not judging you at all. I just wanted to point out implicit bias is not something you necessarily know you have. That's why it's implicit."
The City of Batavia and the Batavia Police Department are asking city residents to participate in an online survey the results of which will be used in formulating the department’s response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203, which requires police departments across New York State to submit reform plans to the state by April 1.
The online survey can be accessed here. It is anticipated that filling out the survey will take approximately five minutes.
The survey is just one component of the various outreach and engagement efforts being conducted by the Batavia Police Advisory Collaboration Stakeholder Group. The Stakeholder Group has met several times with the next meeting scheduled for Dec. 10th at a venue still to be determined because of concerns about the increasing COVID-19 infection rates.
“Community feedback and input is a critical component of our efforts in developing our plan,” said City of Batavia Police Chief Shawn Heubusch. “We realize that not every resident has reliable online access so various members of the stakeholder group are going to assist residents to fill out the survey.”
The survey asks residents to answer various questions, including: the nature of their last interaction with the police department and how they would rate that experience; a series of questions based on a 1-5 rating as to whether they strongly agree or strongly disagree with various statements about the police department; a list of options as far as what the police department should be prioritizing; whether or not assigning non-law-enforcement professionals should respond to certain 9-1-1 calls; and, various demographic information among others.