Editor’s note: We usually reserve our editorials for print first, followed by posting them onto our website. However, due to the historical ramifications of Bethlehem’s Town Board vote to name a new police chief, we are addressing this week’s editorial now.
With a vote of its town board, Bethlehem will take the opportunity tonight to place itself on the right side of history by naming Detective Sgt. Gina Cocchiara as its next police chief. In her 20-plus year career with the town’s police department, she spent most of that time as its only female officer. In the crucible of the law enforcement field, she persevered through engagement with both hardened criminals and interoffice challenges. In the eyes of our residents, she had already taken responsibility for using the Thin Blue Line as a means to tie a community together, instead of as a way to separate her department from its place within it. She brings considerable strength and resilience that is required in her new role. And, within the days we live in today, she has the right amount of compassion that could allow this town to be a part of the healing process much needed throughout our nation. She is, with no doubt, a good choice to lead our police agency for many years to come.
The question remains whether or not Cocchiara was the best choice.
The personal aspirations of today’s political leaders are more visible than in the past. Their corruption is more apparent yet social media fails to keep them honest. Instead, they feign ignorance and use the internet to feed constituents enough lies to have a complacent public believe them. We have a few examples from the past year, alone. We’ve watched as this town risked litigation by allowing people to secretly cut bike trails at Wright Lane. There was the unorthodox push for water slides at Elm Avenue Park that was supported by an awkward, clumsy and unlawful “vote” by the board. And, despite Town Hall trying to convince us of their desire for transparent government, it thwarted Open Meetings Law on several occasions while vetting three candidates for police chief. It did this all while residents gathered at its front door to plead their inclusion in the process, and days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated municipalities work toward doing the same.
Cuomo exacted Executive Order No. 203 to guide both bodies of government and law enforcement agencies in the effort to answer public demand for equity, reform and accountability. Egregious acts against humanity — not recent, but longstanding — have ignited riots and social unrest throughout the country, the world, and in this town. Ordinary citizens no longer sit comfortably at home with the weight of privilege on their minds. The voice for change has been loudest since June. There is a demand for people of all races, creeds and genders to be treated fairly, to be allowed to operate under the same rules and expectations. Being Black should not be a ticketed offense. Resisting arrest should not be the one and only charge. A knee to George Floyd’s throat should be inexcusable, and his death treated as a homicide. That it took months — and the intervention of federal law enforcement — to apprehend two men responsible in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery is unacceptable. That there are still questions surrounding the circumstances leading to Breonna Taylor’s death because there has been no trial.
Based on the principles of equity, reform and accountability, Bethlehem has failed. Enamored by the prospect of appointing its first female police chief, its members made a choice based on gender. This appointment was supposed to be based on merit; Board Member Dan Coffey told us as much. We reviewed the same disciplinary files and the same commendations. We’re befuddled by the decision that allows the candidate with the most problematic disciplinary record — one that includes a suspension, a separate threat of termination and several other reprimands — can be the leading choice. Consider that defense attorneys and convicted felons inundate agencies with FOIL requests for the chance they may find that one botched handling of evidence. Since Cuomo revised state Civil Rights Law, the responsibility to hold our local police officers accountable has fallen upon everyone, and for reasons that don’t necessarily benefit the community. That is why this process has been so highly scrutinized.
Civil Service selections are in place to prevent cronyism by political leaders. It protects employees from falling victim to vindictive politicians who may view them as rivals. It’s meant to be a safeguard. For that reason, it’s damn near impossible to terminate them. The last police chief stood at post for 17 years. He nearly lost his job after he was caught using a racial slur on a recorded phone call. He escaped unemployment because the town board said he didn’t direct the vulgarity towards anyone in particular. Conversely, the town board avoided a costly lawsuit.
Cocchiara did nothing wrong by throwing her hat into consideration for the town’s next police chief. It’s the natural progression in a long career in law enforcement. She answered to and faced the consequences of her actions depicted in her disciplinary file. Before interviewing, she even stepped down from her executive position on the town’s Democratic Committee. Her strengths ultimately stood out against those of two other candidates. She has served this town well, and we’re confident she will continue to do so. However, it’s the town’s responsibility to explain itself.
In the town’s rush to reform, it stumbled out of the gates and fell into the familiar routine of closed-door politics, party privilege and gender bias. It broke laws. It ignored the governor. It turned a blind eye to past transgressions while rewarding a party member who helped all but one board member appear in front of voters. The only reform that this action speaks towards is the return to Dan O’Connell’s political machine in Albany. Somewhere, Matt Clyne must be smiling.