Governor’s Reform Edict Is Not Just Wrong-Headed, It’s Unconstitutional

To the citizens of Chautauqua County:

Many of you are aware that the governor has recently issued his 203rd Executive Order, this time directing all counties to reform their police agency — the Sheriff’s Office — or lose all state funding for all county programs. The Governor’s Order implies that all police agencies and all police officers are racist and abusive of the public. Speaking for the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office, I can state unequivocally that the Governor is wrong in that suggestion.

And the Governor is wrong to threaten our county with financial ruin to get us to make improvements in police operations, which is something we work on every day, without his misinformed bullying. I would like to point out a few things about the Governor’s order that you should consider.

We have a Constitutional form of government, where laws are passed by the Legislature and carried out by the Executive. We do not have a one-man dictatorship. Under our Constitution, state funds are allocated to the counties by the Legislature, not by the governor. The governor had no authority to issue this Executive Order threatening our county with loss of state aid. He had the Legislature present in Albany and at his beck and call the same week that he issued this order and, if he thought it was necessary to threaten the counties, he could have asked the Legislature to consider it, where perhaps there could have been some public input, discussion and due deliberation.

¯ It is wrong the way the governor continues to implement sweeping, impactful changes in law enforcement policy without any opportunity for input from the law enforcement professionals who have to carry out those changes, or from the members of the public who have to suffer the results of those ill-considered changes. His unilateral action in issuing this executive order, and his refusal to slow down the stampede of ill-considered legislation passed the same week, is discouraging to police professionals and detrimental to public safety.

¯ Executive Order 203 is titled a “Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative,” but the governor is anything but a collaborator. Instead of calling together the leaders of the police community in New York — maybe even, for once, being in the same room with them – to discuss ideas, and maybe learn what is actually going on in policing in New York, he issues an ill-informed edict from on high, and expects everyone to conform to his misguided wishes. Unfortunately, it is an opportunity lost for the people of New York because the Sheriffs, and other police leaders in the state, could have been collaborative partners with the governor and the Legislature in thoughtful, measured, well-founded improvements in policing. We are now being forced to react when we should have been invited to participate.

¯ What happened to George Floyd was indefensible, and people across the nation are right to feel angry, and are entitled to question their leaders about the state of policing in America. But it is the job of responsible leaders to respond to people’s understandable emotions with facts and reason. The currently oft-repeated notion that the police are systemically racist simply is not supported by the facts and responsible leaders should say so. It is true that there are some – a very few – police officers who do not deserve to wear the uniform. But that acknowledged fact does not justify painting all police with a broad brush, ignoring the sacrifice the overwhelming percentage of good police officers give for the public every day. We have 95,000 police officers serving in New York. In any group of 95,000, there are bound to be some bad apples, but I wager there are far fewer bad people among New York’s police officers, than among any other group of that size. We should do a better job of identifying the bad ones and getting them out of the profession before they have the opportunity to do harm. We need changes in the law in order to do that, which is something that Sheriffs have strongly supported for years.

¯ To support the governor’s claim of systemic racism in policing, which he is ordering the counties to correct, the governor names eight minority men killed by police over the past 25 years. What he fails to point out is that all eight police shootings took place in New York City. What that might indicate is a racism problem to be addressed in New York City, but it indicates nothing about our county. And even as to New York City it does not indicate much, because what the governor fails to acknowledge is that, of those eight cases over 25 years, three resulted in refusal by the grand jury to indict, three resulted in acquittal by a jury, and only two resulted in a conviction of the officers. Every death at the hands of law enforcement is regrettable, but two guilty cops over a 25-year period, during which there were multi-millions of contacts between police and black citizens, hardly equates to systemic racism in policing.

¯ If racism in New York policing is as evident, pervasive and long-standing as the governor says, then we have to ask him, “Where were you for your first nine years as governor, or during your four years as attorney general? We didn’t hear a peep out of you about this supposed terrible state of affairs in New York policing until the current bandwagon came along, and you jumped on.” The very premise of Executive Order 203 is that local policing in this state is systemically racist … a notion that has been debunked by serious scholars and by the facts. We expect community activists, and the anarchists who take advantage of them, to stir up a following by appealing to emotions. We expect our government leaders to stand up to the angry crowds and recite the facts. The governor is always pontificating about following the facts and the science. How about following that rule now? The facts are on the side of law enforcement in New York. The governor obviously is not.

¯ No one disputes that blacks and other minorities in this country are subjected to too much violence, but little of that is at the hands of the police. In 2018 there were 7,407 black homicide victims. Only the few that were police-involved shootings got any notice. In Chicago on Memorial Day weekend 10 African-Americans were killed in drive-by shootings. There were no politicians bewailing that fact. On a following weekend 80 people were shot in Chicago and 21 of them, mostly black, died. None of our government leaders, including Gov. Cuomo, seemed to notice. It is good that they are now speaking out about the tragic, unnecessary death of George Floyd, but the politicians’ failure to say anything about the senseless deaths every year of thousands of blacks that don’t involve national news coverage, makes one wonder about their sincerity. These alarming statistics of violence in minority communities do not indicate a failure on the part of the police; they indicate a failure of the politicians who talk about racial justice when it is getting news coverage, but who do nothing to improve job opportunities for minorities or to promote strong family units, the very foundation of a stable, just society … family units with a father in the home, who can help raise a family in dignity, with a good job instead of a government check. Not only do they do nothing to strengthen the family, and thus society, but most of their programs tend instead to destroy the family unit and create dependency which the politicians can then exploit to their political advantage.

¯ Our Sheriff’s Office will go through the process mandated by the governor, in order to not jeopardize the county’s finances, but the governor doesn’t need to order us to examine our operations and make improvements. That is what Sheriffs do routinely as professional police managers. Collaborating with community groups and leaders to improve the performance of my office will be not be a novel experience. I do that every day. Our Sheriff’s Office has long ago implemented virtually all of the policies and practices contemplated by the governor’s order. If the governor had any kind of relationship with the police agencies in this State, he would have been aware of that.

¯ Our Sheriff’s Office works regularly with our state partners like the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Municipal Police Training Council, and with the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, to identify and implement best practices in policing. As a responsible manager of tax dollars and resources, I already encourage and participate in diversion programs, restorative justice programs, community outreach, conflict resolution programs; focused deterrence; and violence reduction and prevention initiatives. We have adopted relevant Model Policies recommended by the Municipal Police Training Council. Our deputies are trained in de-escalation practices, the use of force continuum, recognition of implicit bias, and community and citizen relations.

¯ If the governor were at all engaged with the law enforcement community in New York he would know that our Sheriff’s Office in Chautauqua County, and about two-thirds of the other Sheriffs’ Offices in the state, are accredited by his own New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, with many more in the process of gaining accreditation. Accreditation means that our Office has adopted and adheres to the best practices in policing as prescribed by the State’s Law Enforcement Agency Accreditation Council. New York Sheriffs have been and continue to be leaders in the police accreditation movement. The first state-level law enforcement accreditation program was started by the New York State Sheriffs’ Association in 1984 and proved so successful that it was eventually taken over by the state of New York and is now offered to all police agencies in the state.

¯ A glaring omission in the governor’s claim of racism in policing and his order to the counties (and cities, towns and villages) to do correct it, is his failure to mention any of his own state-level police organizations. We are supposed to believe that they are all perfect, because he is in charge of them. He does not include them in his order because to imply that they are racist, like he implies our local police agencies are all racist, would mean that he, as their leader for the past 9 and a half years must condone their racism. The fact is that there are many fine officers in the State Police, the SUNY Police, En Con Police, the Forest Rangers, etc., and I am not accusing them of anything. My deputies work side-by-side with them every day. What I am doing is accusing the governor of hypocrisy for pointing a finger at us and exempting himself from the same scrutiny — because he thinks he is above scrutiny, and must be obeyed.

In issuing his diktat the governor cites his duties under the Constitution. Perhaps he should have read a little further along in the Constitution, where he would have discovered that Sheriffs, too, are Constitutional officers. We do not answer to the governor. We answer to the People. On behalf of the People we have been working at improving policing in New York for a long time. The governor is arriving late to the table.

I will continue to work to improve policing for all my citizens, without respect to race, and will do so despite, not because of, the governor’s attempt to bully our county. I hope that someday in the near future the governor will take the time to find out about all the good things that are actually going on in Sheriffs’ Offices, and other local police agencies around the state, and perhaps then we can work together on these important goals, in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

James Quattrone is Chautauqua County sheriff.


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