On Monday evening, at 7 p.m., the Village of Owego held a public meeting, via zoom, to allow area residents to weigh in on a police reform plan that is being drafted by local officials. Similar to the meeting held by the county last month, the village meeting offered a presentation by Owego Police Chief Joseph Kennedy, followed by a question and answer session. The meeting, in its entirety, ran for about two hours.
Back in June of last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order 203, requiring local governments to adopt a police reform plan that would maintain public safety while building mutual trust and respect between police and the communities they serve. To comply with the order, Village of Owego Mayor Michael Baratta III hopes to have things worked up and ready to review by March, and then adopt at the end of March and after all of the comments come in. Village officials anticipate being done with the plan before April 1.
For Monday’s meeting, a small group of residents zoomed in as Chief Kennedy talked about their engagement within the community, their service as School Resource Officers, the scout camps, and even their new K-9, who is trained to track narcotics.
To assist lawmakers in their reform plan, Chief Kennedy offered a slideshow presentation and offered the results of a recent survey, in which 110 residents responded – 67 percent were homeowners, 37 percent businesses, 11 tenants in Owego, and 77 children.
The results, according to Chief Kennedy, were mostly positive, with domestic calls, mental health calls, and overdose calls all being part of that conversation.
Comments included, “OPD lacks sufficient training,” OPD is present in the village,” “OPD needs to look at both sides of a conflict and not just one,” “They are a great department,” “What could they do better,” “They should merge with the Sheriff,” “They need to increase staffing,” and one that drew discussion, “They should enforce parking.”
But back to police reform, the need for it and the push for systemic change grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who died last May after being pinned down under an officer’s knee. And there were others, too, like Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in Louisville in March of last year; and most recently a young, nine-year-old girl in Rochester, N.Y. who was pepper-sprayed by police during a call.
This last case, in particular, is reflective of the need for further training by police in how to deal with today’s crisis situations.
Laura Rodd Young, Owego resident, joined in Monday’s meeting and reaffirmed the changing needs within the community.
“The Executive Order is not about color,” said Rodd Young, “it’s transgender, people that are autistic, and mental health issues.” She also hinted that this would be a good time for the village to pursue some grants.
Rodd Young emphasized that she is a huge supporter of the Owego Police Department, and that her sole purpose of engaging in the conversation is to make the village the best it can be.
Irena Theresa Rose Horvatt Raia, an area resident and Owego for Equality member, stated during the meeting that a shift from “warrior to guardian” is needed.
Resident Luca Iorga called the system of policing, in general, parochial, and that younger people need to be reached.
As an Owego for Equality member, Iorga has engaged in demonstrations at the Courthouse Square, and has remained active talks taking place regarding reform.
Iorga, as well as Irena, both agreed that the Owego Police Department has been very willing to participate in these conversations.
Irena talked further about mental health, and related it to the officers, wondering if they get screened as well; a question that Chief Kennedy responded to, stating that his officers have to do testing and are mentally evaluated.
One thing that the chief agreed to disagree on, however, is the governor’s bail reform law. Although seeing jails empty is nice, and part of the goal for those seeking reform, the chief stated that police used to be able to sober folks up if they were placed in jail; not now with the reform.
“We don’t have that anymore,” said Chief Kennedy.
The sheriff’s recent comment on the lack of occupancy at the jail was also brought up during the meeting.
Chief Kennedy replied that the jail isn’t making money, and that bail is just an assurance. He added, as did Sheriff Gary Howard during the county’s public meeting, that the victims of the crimes are least happy with the bail reform.
“Bail isn’t a punishment,” stated Chief Kennedy, adding, “We’re all going to have different opinions on the bail reform.” He then noted a fentanyl situation, where the actor is back out on the streets because of the governor’s bail reform.
“My big issue is that they can get help if they go to jail,” the chief added.
Back to the topic of parking, it appears to be an ongoing issue in Owego, and anticipated DRI money, which the mayor says will arrive soon, is earmarked to address the issue.
In the meantime, Monday’s meeting in its entirety can be viewed at https://www.villageofowego.com/home/news/police-reform-public-meeting, along with slides from the police chief’s presentation.