DELMAR — Demands for transparency in Bethlehem’s effort to select a new police chief is coming from both sides of the political spectrum, and they are growing louder.
Progressive Democrats under the online group Bethlehem NY Indivisible warned of social disobedience on Monday if the town board refused its demands. Those demands included a public forum that would allow residents to witness interviews, if not the chance to question candidates themselves. An online petition was circulated later that day asking for the same. By the following day, a demonstration for outside Town Hall was scheduled for the end of the week. The event was shared by both Democrats and Republicans.
Republicans Jim Carriero and Steve Peterson invited followers of their Balance Bethlehem NY social media group. The former town board candidate and ex-committee vice-chairperson, respectively, said it would be a “one-hour, outdoor, bipartisan gathering, with masks and social distancing.”
The rally will meet in front of Town Hall at 445 Delaware Ave. on Friday, Aug. 21, at 4:30 p.m.
Board members interviewed the first of three candidates last Wednesday, the last of such interviews was conducted Tuesday afternoon. Cmdr. Adam Hornick, Detective Sgt. Gina Cocchiara and Sgt. Jim Rexford interviewed separately before board members, Supervisor David VanLuven, Town Attorney James Potter, and Director of Human Resources Mary Tremblay-Glassman.
The inclusion of the entire board in the interview process is not normal operating procedure. It’s the supervisor’s responsibility to appoint a new chief, but VanLuven has said he wanted the board’s input on what he called an “important decision.” However, when there is a quorum of the board, it is considered a meeting and is subject to Open Meeting Law, according to the state Committee on Open Government.
In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended the open meeting law but only as it related to physical meetings; allowing boards to meet telephonically or through online conferences to avoid the spread of novel coronavirus. As members of the town board meet, they are supposed to invite the public. The board is allowed to continue deliberating in an executive session, but there should be an agenda and minutes of the meeting on the town’s calendar.
“That’s exactly what they should be doing,” said Kristin O’Neill, Assistant Director of the state Committee on Open Government. “They can have the interviews and the deliberations in executive session, and they can have both in executive session, as long as they take minutes after the fact. But, in order to enter into that executive session, they need to call an open meeting. There has to be notice. [The] public has to be invited to attend the first two minutes, even if that’s all it is.”
VanLuven, however, disagreed and said job interviews, and the subsequent discussions between board members, are not subject to Open Meeting Law.
The board’s present course has been scrutinized in recent weeks. Former Chief Louis Corsi had no role in deciding who would succeed him. In contrast, when Chief Richard LaChappelle announced his retirement in 2003, he publicly recommended Corsi for the top position. Within a week, after the town board’s approval, Corsi was sworn in.
Today, nationwide cries for social justice and police reform have been coupled with the local police department’s own dubious past related to its former chief, who was suspended more than 10 years ago for using a racial slur in a recorded phone call.
“The selection of a new Chief of Police is a rare opportunity to be able to affect positive change form the highest position in the department,” stated Bethlehem NY Indivisible’s petition. “Transparency and community involvement are paramount in order to promote trust and dialogue between the community, the chief, and the officers who police our town.”
Of the three candidates, Cocchiara has the potential to become the town’s first female chief. Her ties to local Democrats have been public. Until recently, she was a member of the town’s Democratic Committee. She resigned since applying for the chief position. Also public was her service record from more than 20 years with the department. Her disciplinary record revealed several incidents including a two-week suspension in December 2014 after a supervisor observed she was home for three hours while on duty.
The Spotlight received approximately 90 pages from Cocchiara’s disciplinary file, as well as all three commendation records, but there were no incidents shared under Hornick’s and Rexford’s files. When Cuomo amended state Civil Rights Law in June, allowing the release of law enforcement officers’ disciplinary files, it did not allow for everything to be released. Unsubstantiated occurrences are excluded from FOIL responses.
Cuomo’s repeal of section 50a in state civil rights law came as part of sweeping reform in law enforcement weeks following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Along with unveiling misconduct reports to the public, Albany banned controversial chokeholds, prohibited false race-based 911 calls and placed the Attorney General as independent prosecutor in killings of unarmed civilians by police. Floyd’s death while under the knee of a police officer has sparked outrage, demonstrations and riots across the country.
Cuomo also ordered local governments to adopt a policing reform plan by next April. On Monday, the governor’s office released a 139-page guidance packet to aid law enforcement agencies. Within its pages includes the suggestion of citizen advisory boards and committees that incorporate community stakeholders who “can play a continuing and meaningful role in the decision-making process.”
“To ensure these plans are developed through an inclusive process, I called for the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative,” Cuomo wrote in a letter dated Monday, Aug. 17. “With more than 500 law enforcement agencies in our large and diverse state, there is no “one size fits all” solution. To rebuild the police-community relationship, each local government must convene stakeholders for a fact-based and honest dialogue about the public safety needs of their community.”
Town residents have remained active in demanding social reform. Demonstrations have followed calls for action by various facets of the community, the planting of signs for black lives matter, and demands for inclusion in selecting a new chief.
VanLuven has directed answers to Bethlehem NY Indivisible’s concerns. In an email written by him shared in the group’s online forum, he assured the group the town is not rushing through the process. However, the town needs to replace the top two command positions in its police department. He denied the group’s request to delay a decision, to allow for public input, until September.
“We’ve been incorporating input from residents and law enforcement professionals for well over two months to update the qualifications and responsibilities of the new chief,” stated VanLuven, “with a particular eye to department culture and Black Lives Matter. Our process has been careful, detailed, time-consuming and extremely productive.
“We have listened carefully to the issues and recommendations raised by [Bethlehem NY Indivisible] and other residents, and have incorporated them into our questions and decision-making process,” wrote the supervisor. “We are all aligned with the real goal of this effort, which is to bring our police department into a new era and make our wonderful town more fair, just and equitable.”
VanLuven said he will appoint a new chief followed by the board’s formal approval. The next board meeting is Wednesday, Aug. 26 and his appointment is expected to be on the agenda.