YORKTOWN, N.Y. – The conversation on police reform in Yorktown began last month in what can only be described as genial fashion.
Starting from a point of mutual respect and ending with an invitation for coffee, Police Chief Robert Noble met virtually with members of Yorktown for Justice on Tuesday, July 28, with the Yorktown Town Board acting as an intermediary of sorts.
The meeting at the board’s work session was the first step in a much longer process on a collaborative review and the creation of a plan to address issues such as racial bias and use of force in policing. The plan, as mandated by Governor Cuomo’s executive order No. 203, must be completed by April.
“We can be a model for other agencies,” said Daks Armstrong, a member of Yorktown for Justice. “We can be a model for other towns. We can show the other towns down county how it can be done, and how we can all come together as one community and support each other.”
Noble, in his fourth year as police chief and third decade with the department, said he was “all ears” when it comes to the community’s ideas on how he and his officers can improve.
“I may talk a lot now, but I learn a lot more by listening, and that’s gotten me to where I am today,” Noble said. “We all have a lot more in common than we do our differences.”
Municipalities have yet to receive any formal guidance from the state’s Division of Budget on how to proceed with the governor’s months-old executive order, said Town Supervisor Matt Slater.
“But we wanted to have a conversation as an entire Town Board along with our police chief and to begin the conversation as we wait for those regulations to be handed down,” Slater said.
Though he is “very mindful” of the executive order, Noble noted that the Yorktown Police Department has been an accredited agency with the New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services since 1991. Only about 30 percent of police departments in the state maintain accreditation, Noble said. Yorktown is scheduled to have another audit in 2021.
The police chief told members of Yorktown for Justice that his officers are required to complete in-service training every year. All officers, Noble included, are currently being trained in Principled Policing, which covers such topics as implicit bias.
“We’re in a very good place,” Noble said. “I’m proud of this agency. I’m proud of what we do for the community. I firmly believe my staff goes out there and treats people like they want to be treated, or they want their family to be treated.”
Generally in agreement about the competency of Noble’s officers, Yorktown for Justice members nevertheless homed in on specific items they would like to see addressed in the community plan, such as use of force, verbal de-escalation and racial bias.
When it comes to use of force, Noble revealed how his department internally reviews each documented case, beginning with the department’s Use of Force Review Board, which consists of Yorktown’s three police lieutenants.
“I review [the cases] after they review them, but if there was something troublesome, right away, they would bring it my attention and we’d take corrective actions and correct the condition,” Noble said. All uses of force are also reported to the Division of Criminal Justice Services.
During his tenure as police chief, Noble said, his department has never received a formal complaint about racial profiling. However, such a complaint would be vetted by a sergeant. If the complaint is about a sergeant, then it would be reviewed by a lieutenant. After review, one of three determinations would be made: substantiated, unsubstantiated, or exonerated.
“If the complaint was sustained, it would be brought to my attention and I would decide on the corrective action taken,” Noble said. Sometimes, that is done internally. However, “if it was serious enough, then it would go to the Town Board for a hearing.”
Additionally, once a year in January, the Town Board reviews all public complaints against the Yorktown Police Department. Those reviews may occur more frequently going forward, Noble said.
Despite the police chief’s adamancy that “we don’t do that here in Yorktown,” Noble acknowledged that his department has no specific policy about racial profiling. Armstrong, of Yorktown for Justice, said the lack of reports against the department doesn’t mean racial profiling is nonexistent.
“I think that a lot of people suffer in silence,” Armstrong said. “Everywhere is changing. Everywhere is becoming more diverse. We better be ahead of the times, or we’re going to be behind the times.”
Town officials were in agreement on the need to address implicit bias, which is when a person’s subconscious biases affect their decision-making.
“We all have our own biases within us, but the ones that are totally based on color is a real problem,” said Councilwoman Alice Roker.
Diversity training is not currently required for all town employees, which is being addressed, Slater said.
“I think that we’re all very proud of our police department, but there is always room for improvement,” the town supervisor said. “And so, we are obviously going to be looking to collaborate as a community, comply with executive order No. 203, and we’re just awaiting the promulgation of regulations.”
Yorktown for Justice describes itself as a group aimed at addressing structural inequalities by “bringing together our residents and neighbors to work collaboratively toward equity and justice in our community through education, advocacy and activism.” Roker commended the group’s members who attended the Town Board work session.
“There are a lot of people who would want to just criticize,” Roker said. “I love it when a committee comes and says, ‘You know what? We want to help. We want to make you better.’ ”