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Police Chief, Mayor Address Police Conduct, Use-of-Force Policies as Protests Continue

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Scott Willis/WAER News
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The ongoing protests in Syracuse and many other cities are calling out for change in police policies on conduct, use of force, and violence.  Friday, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and Police Chief Kenton Buckner addressed some of the questions that are coming from protestors.

In recent days we’ve seen Mayor Walsh and Police Chief Buckner standing – and even kneeling – with protestors.  But people have a lot of questions about policies on police conduct here in Syracuse and if there’s a desire to change, after seeing the graphic death of George Floyd in Minnesota, which in turn underscored many other high-profile cases of violence for people of color at the hands of police.  Walsh is seeing what’s going on in the city … and here’s what he had to say about hearing the messages.

“We are really focused on getting at the root causes of why people are protesting – talking about systemic racism, talking about inequality – really difficult conversations that we need to be having, that as an administration and as a city, we have been having.”

He gives as an example the extensive process of hiring the police chief, with lots of public input.   Walsh adds the issue at the center of the controversy – use of force, especially against black people – has already gotten attention in Syracuse … here’s what he had to say:

“A lot of people around the country are hitting me up on social media saying ‘you’ve got to look at your use-of-force policy.’  I’m proud to say, we did do that.  Chief Buckner came in; that was on the top of his list.  We made sure that it emphasized valuing the sanctity of human life, the importance of de-escalation, the duty to intercede for other officers, the banning of all choke holds.” 

And Walsh says he’s ready to make more changes.  He wants to see how the city aligns with the “Eight  Can’t Wait” that addresses violence and reporting of incidents of conflict.

He further says policies have changed on dealing with transgender suspects, protocol for traffic stops, and trying to get 100-percent body camera usage for police.   For Chief Buckner’s part, he wants to acknowledge the protests … and has a message for his officers that have been part of tense situations.

“The first thing is, ‘thank you (to officers).’  If you look at some of the events that have occurred across the nation, I’m very proud of how the Syracuse Police Department has responded.  The key things that I have talked to them about are: the community is a partner; people certainly have a right to exercise their first amendment rights, and it’s our duty to protect them; when we do respond, we want to do so in a very measured way; and continue to be professional … in some very long days, in some very tense circumstances.”

He knows both he and his force saw the way George Floyd was treated and killed by police … and also knows it has to be addressed.

“So when we saw what happened in Minneapolis, we immediately started to scan our policies on use-of-force, our policies on how we engage the public, the tactics we use to physically restrain individuals, so that our people understand what’s expected of them and that we are not making similar mistakes.”

So far, Buckner feels as though numerous protests have been managed well … only six arrests, while two officers have been injured.  He says some of that comes directly from policy changes and training … but another factor is work he’s done meeting people in the community.  Here’s how he addressed that.

“Had we not had pre-existing relationships, I think you would have seen a significant difference in how the public and police engaged each other in Syracuse.  There have been tense moments, and there certainly are historical scars in Syracuse with the police department.  But there’s no question in my mind that in the 18 months that I’ve been in here, that the relationships that we have are helping us today.”

Finally , Buckner says any policies are only worthwhile if there’s some accountability.  Both he and Walsh repeated the need for more transparency in reviewing incidents and complaints.  They also say police are working more closely with the Citizen Review Board, though a key element of open hearings is hung up in court. 

All the good will, the policies to prevent unneeded violence and the way people exercising their rights can be safely protected, will be put to the test Saturday when upwards of two thousand people are expected at a downtown rally, scheduled from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. in front of Syracuse City Hall and the Police Department headquarters on State Street.