SOUTH SALEM, N.Y. – Highlighted by tales of discrimination, contentious dialogue among members, and an obscene “Zoom bomb,” the latest meeting of the Lewisboro Police Reform and Reinvention Committee has made waves in the community.
Published a week-and-a-half ago, the video has garnered nearly as many views as all previous meetings combined.
Held virtually on Thursday, Feb. 4, the meeting got off to an auspicious start when about nine minutes in, according to Police Chief David Alfano, at least two young men, possibly teens, hijacked the Zoom call and made “anti-police comments,” such as “f--- the police” and “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards). They then shared their screen, showing a pornographic video of three possibly adolescent females performing oral sex on a man. The entire incident, which has been edited out of the published video, lasted just 9 or 10 seconds, Alfano said.
Not long after, the committee addressed a letter written by Rev. Nikki Edleman, a committee member and pastor of Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church, who called the committee’s work to date “at best a rubber stamp of the status quo and at worst a flagrant farce.” She asked the committee to live up to the requirements of its creation, one of which is “to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”
Andrea Rendo, an attorney and candidate for Town Board, said she took exception to Edleman’s comments.
“Does racism exist in our town? Of course, it does. It exists everywhere,” Rendo said. “But does it exist within our police department or in the manner they carry out police protocol, policy, and procedure, or in the interactions with the public? So far, the answer has been no.”
The policies and practices of the Lewisboro Police Department can always be strengthened, Rendo said, “However, we should not try to manufacture a problem in our town that does not exist. This committee was formed for police oversight. It is not a town-wide committee on racial injustice and inequity.”
The committee was formed in response to Gov. Cuomo’s Executive Order 203, which requires a municipal-led “comprehensive review” involving community stakeholders of a police department’s current policies, procedures, and practices. A plan to “improve any deficiencies” must be approved by the Town Board and submitted to the state by April 2021.
The plan, being drafted by Alfano, will be available for the public to review on Monday, Feb. 22. A public hearing will be held at the committee’s next meeting on Wednesday, March 3, and it will be finalized by the committee the following week. It will then be put to a Town Board vote on Monday, March 15.
Included in the draft, Alfano said, are recommendations for body cameras to be worn by all field officers, implicit bias training, and a duty for officers to “intercede and report” should they witness unreasonable force being used.
REPORTING INCIDENTS OF DISCRIMINATION
At the meeting, the committee also batted around ideas for how complaints against police can be reported, including to the town supervisor or police chief. Charlotte Biancone, one of two Black members of the committee, said that is a non-starter.
“I can tell you, for a fact, that if I experience something in this town, I am not going to go to a Town Board member and I am not going to the police for anything in reference to racial bias, because I have to continue to live here,” Biancone said. “I have experienced harassment just from being on this board.”
She disagreed with Rendo’s comments about limiting the scope of the committee’s work to the policies and procedures of the Lewisboro Police Department.
“Nobody is calling our police department racist,” Biancone said. “What we are trying to do is bring awareness to how some of us feel. What ideas we can maybe bring to help us feel secure, to help us create a level of trust. Because it’s not there. It’s not. You can candy coat it and say, ‘that’s not my problem’ or ‘racism is not a problem in the police department.’ Racism is a problem in Lewisboro. Period. It may not be happening to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
She then took issue with Town Supervisor Peter Parsons, who, at a meeting of local Democratic Party officials, allegedly said that affluent people of color don’t experience racism in the same way as less affluent people of color.
“I’m gonna tell you what, that’s bulls---,” Biancone said.
Parsons responded, “I’ve been told that by people of color.”
“That’s a lie,” Biancone said. “They’re telling you what you want to hear, because it doesn’t matter how affluent you are. You’re just as likely to experience the same treatment whether you’re in a Mercedes or a Volkswagen. Affluence has nothing to do with racism. Nobody sees how much money you have. They see the color of your skin.”
The lack of demerits against the police department, Biancone said, is not reflective of the racism that exists in Lewisboro or the fears of police held by people of color. Biancone said she raised her son to “avoid police by any means necessary,” which includes not calling police if he’s involved in a car accident.
“You’re not going to get minority members of this community to come out and talk about how they’ve been treated,” Biancone said. “They’re not gonna do it.”
RACISM IN THE SCHOOLS
Spurred on by Biancone’s comments, Ron Ross, a former schools superintendent in another Westchester district and another Black member of the committee, said his family has also been discriminated against in Lewisboro, including by police. Decades ago, Ross said, he transferred his daughter from John Jay High School to a private school.
“If you think it had nothing to do with race, you’re fooling yourself,” Ross said.
Biancone supported Ross’ experiences, saying a teacher in the Katonah-Lewisboro School District was recently suspended for saying the n-word in class.
“What’s going on at the high school is unbelievable,” Biancone said. “My biggest regret is that I let my son go to John Jay.
Once her son graduates college, she added, “My house will be on the market. I will not stay in this town… I’ve seen kids grow up in my home, coming here, eating here, sleeping here, staying here, turn around and call us [n-words]. The problem is bigger than policing in our community.”
Steven Siciliano, John Jay High School principal and member of the committee, confirmed the incident to The Katonah-Lewisboro Times.
“It is accurate…that the district was made aware last summer of a video circulating on social media that showed a teacher speaking the n-word,” Siciliano said, though he did not specify at which school the incident occurred. “As soon as the district was made aware of the matter, the district commenced an investigation. KLSD takes any such matter with the utmost seriousness.”
Superintendent Andrew Selesnick said the video had been filmed at an earlier date, but would neither elaborate on the context of the incident nor the teacher’s current status. “We took it very seriously and commenced an investigation, but everything after that is a personnel matter,” he said.
Siciliano, at the meeting, said the district has formed two committees. The Equity and Racial Justice Committee, facilitated by the NYU Center for Strategic Solutions, brings together community members, district educators, students, and alumni. The All-in Action Group, with a similar make-up, “focuses on bringing an equity lens into the classroom.”
“We have been really trying to take this year to educate ourselves as to what are our blind spots. What have we missed?” Siciliano said. “We’re beginning to learn more deeply the frustrations that students have experienced at the high school. We’re not running away from it. We are committed to working to change the culture. We have been working to change curriculum. We are becoming much more conscious of students of color seeing themselves reflected in the school, reflected in the administration, reflected in the staff. But it’s going to take time.”
No matter what actions the district takes, Rendo lamented, racist behavior is learned at home.
THIN BLUE LINE
The personal Facebook page of Lewisboro’s police chief came into focus late in the meeting. Specifically, some members of the committee took issue with an image of the “Thin Blue Line” flag that Alfano used as his page’s cover photo. The symbol features a black and white American flag, except for one blue line—reflecting the color of police uniforms—running horizontally across the middle. Both the symbol and the phrase are decades old, but have come into focus in recent years as more people adopt the imagery to defend the police in response to protests.
“I’m a police officer. I’m not a politician,” Alfano said. “I’m not a sociologist. I’m not cognizant of what all the meanings are of the different symbols. All I know is what the flag represents to me; that it’s for all of the police officers who died in the line of duty throughout the nation.”
Exact statistics vary depending on the source, but the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund said 210 officers died in the line of duty in 2020—a near 60-percent jump from 2019. COVID-19 was the predominant reason for the surge in deaths.
“I put that flag there because I’m in charge of morale in my police department,” Alfano said. “I want all my officers to know that I support them, and I’m worried about their safety.”
Parsons defended Alfano, saying the police chief is charged with maintaining morale. “You must have high morale to protect citizens,” the town supervisor said.
Edleman, who criticized Alfano’s use of the symbol in a letter to the committee, was not buying that reasoning. The pastor said the police chief should not be boosting morale at the expense of people in the community who find that symbol offensive.
Rendo also jumped in to defend Alfano, saying the police chief has been the target of multiple criminal mischief events on and near his property, which included someone spray-painting “ACAB” on the street. Alfano confirmed this and other incidents to the Times.
“The morale of our police department in town has been a concern,” Rendo said.
“How well do you even know our police department?” she questioned Edleman, who took her South Salem post in 2018. “You haven’t even been here that long. That’s just, to me, unbelievable.”
Last year, the Katonah-Lewisboro School District underwent an identity change, shedding its long-time Indians mascot in favor of the Wolves. Siciliano said this experience taught him the importance of symbols and how impact trumps intention.
“If we’re going to come together, we can’t be polarized,” Siciliano said.
The police chief has since changed his cover photo and deleted the Thin Blue Line image from his page. “I’m going to be the bigger and better person, and I’m going to remove it,” Alfano said. “I apologize to the people I offended.”
When the dust settled, the committee turned its attention toward future actions.
“What can we do going forward to improve things and have an atmosphere where people can comfortably bring up issues and concerns they have on a going forward basis?” asked Councilman Richard Sklarin, a committee member.
Parsons suggested the underused town Ethics Committee as a landing spot for complaints that are not resolved by either the police chief or town supervisor. The committee has two members now, but Parsons would like to add a third.
Biancone said she did not plan to be so outspoken at the meeting. “I told my family I was going to sit back and not say anything, either,” Biancone said. “But to say nothing is to be [complicit]…We are afraid. We’re outnumbered.”
Alfano thanked Biancone and Ross for sharing their stories.
“We want you to come out and say all of this, because this is how we’re going to make it better,” he said. “I know you feel uncomfortable talking to police. But hopefully I can be the one to change that.”