After months of protests calling for police reform and racial justice in the Southern Tier, local activists expressed frustration with Broome County’s proposed legislation of addressing these issues.
Representatives from Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST), an organization committed to ending mass incarceration and unjust policing in the Southern Tier, held a press conference on Thursday outside the Broome County Office Building in Downtown Binghamton. The speakers denounced the Broome County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative plan, set to be approved at 5 p.m. over Zoom the same day.
The plan is six sentences long and was released in accordance with New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that local governments develop a plan for police reform. It promises to hire a more diverse team of law enforcement professionals, expand mental health and substance abuse treatment services, provide training for civil service examinations and increase community engagement with the Broome County Sheriff’s Office.
For local activists, the plan represents stagnation rather than reform. Andy Pragacz, visiting assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at SUNY Cortland, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at BU and a member of JUST, said the plan does not reflect community demands for divestment from the police and investment in alternative programs.
“[Binghamton has] a long history of misusing the criminal-legal system to address our community’s most pressing structural problems,” Pragacz said. “There are only two substantive proposals discussing mental health and substance use. These would involve the criminal-legal system, a system that so far has proved totally inadequate at addressing these issues.”
For Pragacz, the plan’s failings stem from a lack of community input in the plan. Pragacz said the task force charged with creating the plan did not include community organizations like JUST. Although the group held sessions for public comment, Pragacz said he felt these events were poorly publicized sessions in which individuals could speak for a maximum of three minutes.
“It was supposed to be a democratic process that involved all communities and all stakeholders,” Pragacz said. “Instead, they chose a clique of government insiders drawn from governmental agencies that are already indebted to a system that criminalizes poverty, mental health and substance abuse.”
Mani Griffin, 29, a Johnson City resident and speaker at the press conference, said it is important that reform efforts, like the one in Binghamton, include people from the community.
“I am a person of color,” Griffin said. “My [5-year-old] daughter doesn’t feel safe whenever she sees a police officer or if I get pulled over for driving while Black. She is scared for her life. If we continue to be ignored, the problems are going to continue to manifest. The process for this police reform wasn’t inclusive, and it was meant to keep our voices from being heard.”
Tina Chronopoulos, a speaker at the press conference and an associate professor of classical and near eastern studies at BU, said she agreed that the Broome County police reform plan failed to reconcile with racism and classism in policing.
“This has been a missed opportunity across the entire state,” Chronopoulos said. “Law enforcement in this country has a long history based in slave patrols in the 19th century. It’s based on coming down hard on worker’s unions who were fighting … to gain worker’s rights. Racism and classism are entrenched in law enforcement.”
Four hours after the press conference, the Broome County Legislature met via Zoom to approve the plan. Griffin and Chronopoulos held signs up to their screens that read, “Your police reform plan is an affront to the community” and “Reject Sheriff’s Reform ‘Proposal.’”
Despite the protest, the legislature passed the Broome County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative plan with a vote of 11 to four.
Pragacz said that given Broome County’s Republican-dominated legislature, JUST and similar organizations had anticipated the approval of the plan. Though they were unable to change the political outcome, Pragacz said he hopes their advocacy will spread awareness about the plan’s failings.
“What we’re here to do today is to let the people of Broome County know what is happening behind closed doors without their input,” Pragacz said. “We’re going to keep putting out information about what’s happening in policing and criminal justice here in this county, and we’re going to keep advocating at the state, local and county levels.”