The Syracuse Common Council has passed “Right to Know” legislation

The legislation is a seismic shift in the way the City of Syracuse handles Police relations with a disheartened community.

Earlier in the Summer, Last Chance for Change and Black Lives Matter Syracuse, led a coalition of 14 advocacy groups that took to the streets in protest following the death of George Floyd. These groups, after weeks of protest coalesced, and presented a list of demands to the Syracuse Common Council and Mayor Ben Walsh. Some of their demands were incorporated into the recently passed Right to Know Legislation; continuing efforts by the Common Council, Police Chief Kenton Buckner, and Mayor Ben Walsh to reform the Syracuse Police Department.

Prompted by Governor Cuomo’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Executive Order; The passing of the legislation involved detailed negotiations with the Syracuse Police Department. Upon review, on September 22nd the SPD had a list of detailed points where they were concerned about implementation and clarification.

Chief Buckner’s Syracuse Police Department review concluded with a statement, “ My office carefully reviewed the Common Council’s proposed Right to Know Legislation. Below are the Syracuse Police Department’s observations and requests for changes to the legislation. Attached to this memo is a red-lined version of the proposed legislation with the suggested revisions that are discussed in this memo.”

The process then was to look at the detailed 5 page response from the Syracuse Police Department and factor in those concerns into the writing of any reform legislation.

The following is an example of the SPD response to Section 19-10(a) & (b): of the proposed new law;

19-10(a) & (b): These sections require the police department to report demographic and other information for all investigative encounters (levels one, two and three) with citizens. SPD requests that this reporting requirement be refined to focus on level two encounters in which consent is sought and level three encounters, as explained further below.

As background, the levels defined in the legislation reflect the four levels of police encounters from the NYS Court of Appeals decision in People v. De Bour. This case, together with years of court decisions, establishes the relative rights and obligations of officers and citizens during an encounter.

Under level one, an officer can ask for information from an individual where there is an objective credible reason to approach, not necessarily indicative of criminality. In other words, these are encounters do not involve a suspicion of criminal activity. The nature of a level one encounter is such that the exchange is not formally documented. An officer can ask for information, but the citizen has no obligation to answer. Requiring the officer to collect the demographic information needed for reporting these casual encounters may unnecessarily formalize and escalate the encounters. Consider the following level one scenario, for example: City Hall is closed and an employee is waiting out front for a ride. A police officer could stop and say, “Hi, how are you, can I help you? City Hall is closed.” There is no public safety reason to collect the demographic information required by the legislation, and may only raise distrust of the citizen for the officer to ask for such personal information. Requiring reporting on level one encounters would also impose a new operational burden that will undoubtedly slow response times, because level one conversations happen frequently throughout a shift. More time would be spent writing reports, leaving less time to respond to calls or investigate crimes.

At a level two encounter, an officer has a common law right to ask questions based on a “founded suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.” This is still a low level encounter during which the citizen has no obligation to answer questions, and can turn and walk away. An officer cannot forcibly detain the individual. These are the types of encounters in which an officer may request the person’s consent to search. It is at this stage—where an officer seeks consent to search—that officers document the encounter. The Department agrees it is appropriate to report level two encounters where an officer asks for consent, as well as level three encounters.”

The aforementioned is part of the detailed response that presents some real-life situations, each had to be taken into account. Once those concerns were reviewed, the Common Council proceeded to draft the Right to Know legislation.

Syracuse Police Chief Kenton Buckner

When the legislation was passed, Syracuse Police Chief Buckner issued the following statement, “SPD has started the process for implementation of the Right to Know legislation as directed by the Common Council. This endeavor is a significant undertaking and will require several moving parts to come together before it becomes operational. We will keep all vested parties informed of our progress as we move forward.​”

As we enter this new era of Community/ Police relations, what has emerged as a result of a Summer of protests, is the newly minted, “Right to Know” Law. The Walsh Administration created a dashboard where people can check the status of Syracuse’s Police reform initiatives by going to the  New Syracuse Police Reform Web Portal

The web portal presents an overview of commitments made by the City to address police reform and delivers status updates on each of the initiatives, as well as details on actions completed. It also provides a timeline of work by the Walsh Administration on police-community relations over the past two and a half years.

“Our team at City Hall and in the Syracuse Police Department work every day on strengthening police-community relations and increasing police accountability,” said Mayor Walsh. “The community has strong interest in what we are doing and what we have already done. The portal makes it easy to follow what is being done and how we are tracking toward our commitments to the community.”

The portal includes the Department’s revised Use of Force policy which was previously released.  A revised Body-Worn Camera policy is now posted. Both documents were updated in 2019 and have been revised again based on input from a variety of internal and external sources.

The “Right to Know Law” would not have been possible without the commitment made by Mayor Walsh, to seriously look at the issue of community/police relations. It didn’t hurt to have 14 advocacy groups, some committed to 30 days in marching the streets of Syracuse in protest. These combined efforts and a special moment in history, succeeded in moving Syracuse from decades of delivering people pleasing platitudes, to an era of community/police engagement, offering residents tangible results.