In the wake of civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd and the long-standing history of police brutality towards Black Americans, SUNY New Paltz’s University Police Department (UPD) issued a statement committing to anti-racism on Aug. 20. However, it is unclear whether UPD has implemented new policies to actively stand by their commitment.
“We want to be able to serve all of our community and the only way to do that is to acknowledge the racism that has occurred in policing over time and in agencies across the country,” said UPD Chief of Police Mary Ritayik. “We do not condone the actions of the officers in the killing of George Floyd. In order for police agencies to regain trust of the community, we need to commit to being anti-racist not just in words but in our actions.”
In the email, signed off Ritayik, UPD stated that they would “continue to commit to ongoing community conversations that bring about transparency and thought-provoking dialogue to better understand what we need to do and how the community can move forward together,” train officers on implicit bias and de-escalation, thoroughly review their policies and procedures to ensure they support an anti-racist culture and “attract, hire and retain only the best police candidates to serve our campus community.”
SUNY New Paltz and UPD have made some changes to their policies after they released this statement. The college has reduced “the situations for which UPD is called, such as not relying on UPD to enforce public health policy in the midst of our current crisis.” The College also employed a new after-hours protocol for responding to mental health crises, which directs after-hours emergency crisis calls, that would normally go to UPD, to the Emergency Counselor for Student Consult (ECSC).
UPD completed a series of “Plain Clothes Plain Talk” programs in the residence halls this fall semester to allow students to talk with officers in a comfortable environment and to get to know the officers individually. UPD is also working on updating its website to be more transparent, including statistics, resources and information on training programs. Finally, the department is looking at how they can incorporate Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s police reform recommendations from Executive Order 203 to on-campus policing.
However, Katari Sisa, propaganda coordinator for New Paltz Socialists and graduate student studying special education said that UPD systematically has “very little room to commit to being anti-racist.”
“Police serve the primary role of controlling the oppressed groups in society to maintain a social and economic hierarchy, so the role of the police is very limited there,” Sisa said.
“If they were to take up some form of anti-racism, they wouldn’t be police anymore and would even have to break some laws giving colonized people (POC) the ability to fight their oppression head-on. This would look like letting people unionize, confront their bosses collectively and secure housing out of [their] landlords’ hands. Things that people get criminalized for all the time.”
Policy changes that Sisa would like to see for UPD to fully commit to their statement of anti-racism include demilitarization, such as the removal of guns which “make the campus feel like a war zone,” decreasing their overall budget, starting up student-lead self-defense and community protection programs, and more transparency.
“Records about people’s cases and police misconduct are incredibly hard to obtain since the police are under special civil rights law 50-a,” Sisa said. “These are huge political battles that aren’t solved on the campus level. Usually, any small amount of reform on the part of the police will be used against people. Like if we make the police hire more local police, it would just make it easier for them to play friendly and crackdown on people for small offenses.”
On June 29, the New Paltz Socialists posted on their Instagram that UPD has four times the budget of the Black Studies Department, which is important to note for conversations about anti-racism in New Paltz.
“We need a strong Black Studies program regardless,” Sisa said. “Studying Black history is fundamental to understanding the role of police and how people have resisted and developed other ways of thinking that assume the police are a never-ending necessity. Having a wildly Eurocentric curriculum of study in a society that was built off slavery and genocide is crazy racist.”
However, UPD’s budget is different compared to SUNY New Paltz campus departments because UPD operates at all hours.
“UPD, unlike other campus units, operates around the clock 24/7/365 with mandatory minimum staffing requirements,” Ritayk said. “Most of our budget is payroll.”
Although UPD is campus-level, Sisa said that they still play a role in systemic racism in the U.S.
Sisa said a few years ago SUNY New Paltz was the No. 1 SUNY school for marijuana arrests. “In this sense, UPD has failed as well since New Paltz is laughed at for how many drug-related arrests we have. We call these arrests non-violent because the person being accused of breaking the law is non-violent but having your life interrupted by ridiculous drug laws that are mostly used to target people of color is totally violent.”
UPD is also one of the three “overlapping” police departments in New Paltz. “In the grand scheme, they are just a cog in the system,” Sisa said. “UPD just models themselves off what the state standard is and follows the racist system with little questioning or resistance. They are cowards who endorse the use of violence to try, unsuccessfully, to solve society’s problems.”
Sisa does not believe that UPD has the power to thoroughly review its policies in order to commit to anti-racism.
“Criminalizing poverty is the law, that’s something one police department can’t change on their own. Policing is an international problem. Everywhere that the government is modeled after Western states we see the same acts of brutality on working-class people, just think about Nigeria,” Sisa said. “Are Nigerian government officials and police racist? No, of course not, but do they enact the same kinds of violence on the people? Yes.”