BETHLEHEM — The Bethlehem Town Board voted unanimously to approve its Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative Plan on Wednesday, March 24.
After six months of meetings, a community-led, 19-member advisory board presented a 109-paged document detailing more than 80 suggestions to reform the town’s police department. The document is the culmination of a comprehensive law enforcement effort directed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor’s office mandated communities to structure such a plan in last June’s executive order, following the controversial death of George Floyd under the hands of police in Minneapolis.
Similar to neighboring communities, Bethlehem formed an advisory committee comprised of community leaders selected for respective fields of expertise. Members of the committee were selected last September.
The document comes before the board less than two weeks before the governor’s imposed April 1 deadline.
“The creation of this plan is by no means the completion of the effort to address the challenges identified within it,” stated Town Supervisor David VanLuven in a statement the town released the following day. “I look forward to working closely with the Police Department and community in the coming months to implement the Plan’s recommendations, and I am so grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make this plan into such a powerful vision for our future.”
In last week’s announcement, only two board members shared comments, VanLuven and Maureen Cunningham, each running for reelection under the Democrat ticket this year. Among those omitted from last week’s statement was Jim Foster, the only other board member running for reelection, and the board’s only Republican.
Town Board Member Dan Coffey confirmed he was aware of the statement before its release last Thursday. The Republican, however, said he was not approached.
“I wanted the release to emphasize comments from the community rather than elected officials,” VanLuven responded in an email to The Spotlight. “I included Maureen because she was a terrific leader in the effort, but I did not approach any of the other town board members. I don’t recall Jim Foster saying anything in any of the 15 Advisory Committee meetings or Community Forums.
Foster did approve of the reform plan last week, specifically thanking “the members of the community at large,” he said, “that stepped up and provided input throughout the process, and shared their personal experiences. Some of which was very difficult to share, I’m sure, and certainly difficult enough to hear.”
The town supervisor presented the highlights of the plan, of which one of the suggestions was to have town police officers wear body cameras.
Bethlehem Police Chief Gina Cocchiara stated in the document that she welcomes body cameras on her on-duty police officers. However, she also pointed out, her law enforcement agency seldom used force — less than one percent — in approximately 16,000 calls over the last five years.
“The Bethlehem Police Department today is very different from the one I joined as a young officer in 1998,” Cocchiara said. “Change doesn’t always come easily, but it is often necessary. Looking forward, I envision a modernized community-based Police Department that is fair and equitable.”
Last September, VanLuven presented figures suggesting a disparity between the number of traffic tickets issued to people of color versus the town’s demographics. He shared how nearly 40 percent of all tickets issued by Bethlehem Police Department in 2019 were to people of color, contrasting against the nearly 95 percent are whites who live in town, according to the 2010 census.
The police department later balked at suggesting people of color were targeted. The department was in the midst of transitioning to a new ticketing system, from hand-written to electronic. The department said, the town supervisor did not have a complete record.
VanLuven explained last week that the numbers were skewed as the department did not record the number of traffic stops, only the number of tickets issued. He further explained that several tickets can be issued on a single stop.
“The only way we can evaluate the problems that exist, if any, we need to get more data,” Coffey said.