Bethlehem’s pending adoption of its Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative plan will soon be touted as an historic achievement, forcing a Police Department to admit past transgressions and community leaders to publicly commit to do better. Indeed, the 109-page document serves its people in doing both. There is honesty, and we dare say sincerity, captured within this well-packaged, colorful and polished piece of work. We are, however, concerned that there are some undertones, statements and accusations included just beyond the executive summary that diminish the effectiveness of the report.
Compliments should first be shared to those of the community who volunteered their time to ask the tough questions, and often stood firm against defended practices excusing archaic behaviors that were devoid of understanding the detrimental consequences of them. The initial intimidation of facing such a discourse was just the first of many obstacles, these face-to-face conversations between everyday citizens and those who shape civil policy, but had to have been the largest.
Read the words of Bethlehem Police Chief Gina Cocchiara and you will find a welcoming blend of thoughts that offer apologies for the past, and a willingness to change for the future. She recognizes the “warrior mentality” that once defined its culture. She acknowledges the “enthusiastic approach” to public safety that was as “effective” as it was “aggressive,” and that it “may have negatively affected [less affluent] people.” Specifically, accepting calls from residents simply identifying a person of color walking through the neighborhood, instead of properly vetting the request with more information.
Cocchiara also confidently stands by her staff when welcoming the opportunity for such safety precautions as wearing body cameras. These tools have proven to be effective at times in capturing behaviors rooted in implicit bias. But, she also proudly shares the department’s record for extremely low use of force rates, and complaints. Indeed, the true light of the police department we have come to understand in recent years is revealed in this report, and strongly contrasts against the venomous words we heard in recent protests. Those angry words could be used to describe other police departments, but not ours. The chief’s willingness to change, and open her doors to the community, is worth commending.
In the months since our town was tasked with the responsibility of drafting this plan by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last June, this predominantly white community has learned to question the status quo and appreciate the hidden context before us.
Town Supervisor David VanLuven often refers to Cocchiara’s appointment as the town’s first step towards reform. He did it last summer. He documented again within the town’s Black Lives resolution last September. And, he does so here in his introduction to this plan, pages certain to be referenced for years to come.
“In Bethlehem, the process for creating this plan has been rigorous,” he states. “It began with the promotion of Gina Cocchiara to replace the previous police chief who in 2009 was disciplined for using a racial slur.”
This would be worth sharing if Cocchiara’s appointment also took place in 2009, and not 11 years later.
Let’s keep in mind, this paper took Town Hall to task that year when then-Bethlehem Police Chief Lou Corsi received just a slap on the wrist. The Democrat-led board at the time went further by stating they did not see their police chief as a racist. Now, 11 years and four supervisors later, this administration is willing to call him as such? Unless VanLuven is stating he took an active role in seeing Corsi out the door, this is not an achievement upon which one hangs his hat.
Corsi retired — a decade, plus one year, later — with all the honors afforded an officer in good standing, including a parting gift hand-delivered by VanLuven.
Where the town’s police chief has shown humility and strength by apologizing for past mistakes, you see spin doctoring here from our town’s supervisor. Chief Cocchiara has earned our respect. The process by which she was selected, however, falls upon the town board.
“The process for hiring Chief Cocchiara was intensive and thorough, spanning several months and involving extensive input from many residents at demonstrations, on social media, and in conversations by email, phone, and in person.”
By thorough, do you also attribute violating open meeting law, neglecting to call up and review the personnel files of each candidate, and overlooking public perception of appointing the only candidate who sat on your party’s committee? We don’t expect you to share as much, but what’s not spoken speaks louder than what you do share.
“In September 2020, the town supervisor and Town Board passed a strong resolution supporting Black lives with all but one Town Board Member voting in favor of it…”
What is this? This is not a mea culpa. We know that 2021 is an election year for both VanLuven and Republican Town Board member Jim Foster, but we did not expect to see such pettiness. Not after Foster has twice explained that his no-vote had nothing to do with the principles stated within the resolution.
Foster’s argument was that a revised resolution was posted online only hours before “all but one” town board member pushed to pass it without providing ample time for residents to review it. The simple mention of the event without context is misrepresenting the facts. Worse, the casual placement of these few words in the police review document, which will be billed as an historic undertaking by the present administration, is nothing short character assassination. Even Democrat Ted Hartman recently called Foster a “good guy,” yet you leave readers to deduce the Republican as a racist.
Omitting context can sway focus away from the real and important tasks that need to be done. This is another sad example of our leaders interjecting politics and labeling it historic to justify bad processes and behavior.
Actions speak louder than words and words cannot hide your actions.