DELMAR — Approximately 16 percent of motorists ticketed in town were Black, according to the Bethlehem Police Department’s one-year update on its Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative Plan.
That’s a higher percentage than the 2 percent population of Black residents in town, but the disparity may be due to the “busy areas” in which tickets were issued, Bethlehem Police Chief Gina Cocchiara said.
In addition to the motorist stop report, the police chief is expected to speak on what progress her agency has made since last April’s statewide mandated commitment to police reform when the Town Board meets Wednesday, March 23.
“Given that officers cannot see the race of drivers when initiating stops, it is striking that the percentage of stops involving People of Color is so much higher than the demographic composition of Bethlehem residents (91 percent White, 2 percent Black, 4 percent Asian, 1 percent Other),” Cocchiara stated in her seven-page report to the Town Board. “We surmise that this disparity is the result of the busy areas where we undertake most of our traffic enforcement having a more diverse population of drivers than Bethlehem’s residents.”
The numbers were collected during an eight-month period last year in which officers began collecting data on perceived race on April 30. The data set concluded at the end of the year and included 2,492 traffic stops. Of those stops, 404 (16 percent) motorists were Black while 1,584 63.5 percent) were White.
Tickets were issued to roughly the same percentage of motorists who were stopped, the report states. Of the 904 stops, 16 percent (or 146) of Black motorists were issued tickets. Approximately 70 percent of White motorists issued tickets within the same time period.
In 2021, the police department required its officers to note the perceived race of drivers at all traffic enforcement stops in addition to when issuing tickets. The agency has also purchased software to accommodate record keeping.
“It is important to note, as previously discussed in the Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative Plan, patrol officers rarely can tell the race or gender of the driver when initiating a traffic stop,” Cocchiara stated. “Patrol officers usually cannot ascertain the racial identity or gender of the driver until they are standing beside the vehicle.”
She stated that traffic enforcement continued to emphasize on reducing accidents, aggressive driving and slowing speeds. The agency increased speed patrols across the town’s 250-mile road network, including 28 residential streets with persistent public complaints. State funding allowed for a particular focus on Route 32, Krumkill Road and River Road.
Officers were introduced to six new training programs last year, including various concepts of de-escalation and mental health services review. Last year’s reform committee had emphasized a review of the agency’s policing strategies, including how it responds to mental awareness calls.
Since 2021, Cocchiara said Bethlehem now collaborates with Albany County Crisis Officials Responding and Diverting program. The ACCORD program consists of two response teams, with social workers from the County’s Mobile Crisis Team and paramedics from the Sheriff’s Office, who have been trained to handle situations involving mental health and nonviolent emergency cases where law enforcement is not essential.
Cocchiara has publicly supported equipping body cameras on her agency’s officers. The town is actively assessing how it will establish new infrastructure to store and categorize those videos, including how to manage them and by whom. The agency’s plan to establish a separate, online dashboard is projected to be completed by early next year.
The police chief said the dashboard project has been hampered by recent retirements. Five senior officers retired in 2021, according to the report. Despite the turnover, she said the agency has all of its 39 positions filled.
The police chief also states that her agency is currently working with the Bethlehem Central School District on redefining expectations for school resource officers on its campuses.
“I am proud of the work of our police department in 2021,” Cocchiara stated. “We have made positive progress on many of the recommendations in the Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative Plan. More importantly, we continue to serve our community fairly and equitably.”