The New Paltz Town Board exonerated Officer Robert Knoth, from the New Paltz Police Department (NPPD), of police brutality allegations following the arrest of Paul Echols in September of 2018.
On Dec. 20, the board members convened at the Town Courthouse along with dozens of concerned citizens from the community. They concluded that Officer Knoth had operated within his legal limits according to NPPD’s use-of-force policies. They also could not find a link to the officer’s actions and the damage dealt to Echols’ face. The decision was based on a volume of evidence scrutinized by the Police Commission, Police Citizens’ Advisory Committee (PCAC) and the Ulster County District Attorney’s office.
“If I had been presented with the evidence that the public had been given to make their decision, I would likely be upset with the decision that the Town Board came up with,” said Deputy Town Supervisor Daniel Torres. “Having had the ability to look at the full picture I’m confident we made the right decision.”
Back in September, Echols was arrested during an altercation outside of P&G’s Restaurant. Echols was allegedly sexually harassing women outside the bar which led to a fight and ultimately his arrest. According to police records, during the arrest Knoth became tangled in Echols’ handcuffs while placing him in the police vehicle and the two fell in. Echols then allegedly spat blood in Knoth’s face and Knoth hit Echols several times in the face to free himself. In the time between the initial fight and his arrest, Echols suffered a dislocated jaw and lost several teeth. Echols awaits his trial set for March.
The PCAC is a group of local residents including Brendan McLaughlin, Richard Feisel, Gowri Parameswaran, Amanda Sisenstein and Cindy Woebse. Lucchesi acts as a liaison between the committee. The committee is in charge of processing all complaints against the NPPD, however, this was the first major case they had to deal with.
The investigating parties poured over police documents, eyewitness reports and video evidence before coming to their final verdict. They also compared Officer Knoth’s case to other state court decisions on excessive force and statewide policies on use of force.
“The findings of this investigation conclude that the application of force was lawful and in compliance with department policey” said Lt. Robert Lucchesi of the NPPD. “I reject the premise that Officer Knoth struck Mr. Echols in retaliation for spitting on officers.”
Although the board had initially intended to release the ten-page report on the PCAC’s findings, they had to rescind the offer due to legal technicalities. Board members were concerned that the personal information contained in the documents could impede a fair trial for Echols’ impending court date. Additionally, the NPPD denied The Oracle’s Freedom of Information Law request form for the department’s use-of-force policies.
When the verdict was given, reactions were mixed in the polarized and tense atmosphere of the courthouse. There was a clear and literal divide among the attendees with police supporters on one side and critics on the other.
“It was very frustrating but not surprising,” said Tanya Marquette, a Concerned Parents of New Paltz member who worked closely with Echols on his case. “I feel that the ‘blue wall of silence’ is just as operative here as it is in Ferguson.”
On the other hand, local resident Joseph Garcia was in support of Officer Knoth’s actions and the decision made by the board. He was especially displeased with Echols’ decision to spit blood in Officer Knoth’s face.
“That’s an attempt at causing serious, even lethal damage to a person, due to coming in contact with bodily fluids that could carry disease,” Garcia said. “At that point, as a police officer, you have the right to defend yourself and stop the attack.”
Neither Echols nor his attorney, Michael Sussman, were able to be reached for comment in time for print.
According to Torres, the Town Board unanimously supports buying body cameras for officers for mutual protection between the department and citizens. The NPPD also conducts a number of trainings in crisis intervention, de-escalation and racial bias training to prepare their officers as much as possible.
“We unanimously believe in the idea that institutional racism is a problem in any organization,” Torres said. “We believe that we can do better and offer training for ourselves, our officers and the betterment of the community.”