Citing Foul Language, Binghamton City Council Cuts Short Police Reform Hearing

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Updated: 3/23/21 — 4:24 P.M.

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — The Binghamton City Council’s virtual public hearing to discuss the city’s Police Reform and Reinvention plan was cut short on Monday.

Each law enforcement jurisdiction in New York must submit a reform plan to the state by the end of the month in accordance with an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year.

Protesters gathered in Binghamton on Monday to voice concerns about the city’s police reform plan during a city council public hearing. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

The public hearing for the plan came to a hurried stop after some council members expressed frustrations with callers who used foul language during their comments.

City Council President Sophia Resciniti called to adjourn the meeting after nearly two hours. She said too many callers had violated rules about language and were disrespectful.

“The goal here really is to allow for a space that makes our citizens comfortable to tune in with their children, with whoever they want to participate in this process that we have,” Resciniti said before ending the meeting.

Any other public comment, she added before ending the virtual public hearing, held over Zoom, could be sent directly to the committee charged with drafting the police reform plan. Those comments will then be forwarded to the city council, which is expected to vote on the draft.

Resciniti paused the meeting at several points to discuss callers’ foul language.

Third District Councilwoman Angela Riley said a change in tone could encourage the callers to use less-terse language.

“I think what needs to be done is we need to set the tone,” Riley said. “I get the frustration of the callers, we do understand decorum, but again, setting the tone without being condescending is important.”

In a video posted to Facebook later Monday night, Councilwoman Aviva Friedman, who represents the city’s fourth district, said that Resciniti’s move to end the meeting was shocking.

“I want to hear everyone’s voices,” Friedman said. “That’s why I was hired as an elected official, to listen to and uplift my constituent’s voices and I am frankly disgusted by the behavior that was exhibited tonight.”

Several of the calls came from a protest held outside the city’s district attorney’s office. Members of the crowd said they were frustrated with the city’s reform planning process. Many said it was exclusionary, and that it ignored community demands voiced during racial justice protests last summer.

Residents in attendance on Monday told council members that they want more transparency about officer conduct, changes to the police department’s use-of-force policy, the elimination of chokeholds and funding for the department reinvested in other services, like mental health care, youth centers and affordable housing.

“There should be mental health workers coming for mental health issues, not police officers,” said Jackie Wood, who lives on Binghamton’s North Side. “My own grandson is autistic, and even if he was threatening to beat me up or whatever, I would still rather get beat up than call the police.”

The city’s draft describes goals to expand its partnership with the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier on training and response programs to improve interactions between police and individuals. It also includes plans to explore alternatives to transporting residents in a patrol car when an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis. No specific references to what alternatives they would use were included.

Mary Clark, Regional Director for Citizen Action of the Southern Tier, said the city’s planning process should’ve begun earlier. Binghamton didn’t begin holding community discussions until January.

“There’s no excuse that they started at the end of January,” Clark said, adding the city’s forums were set up in a convoluted way that made it hard for residents to participate.

On Tuesday, Mayor Rich David released a statement condemning the groups that organized the protest. He said some of those who stood outside the district attorney’s office then crossed the street to City Hall, where the city council meets, and approached the second-floor entrance.

“Some began banging on the glass to the meeting space where President Resciniti was with two employees of the Clerk’s Office,” David wrote. “No other City Council members were in the building, having joined the public comment session remotely. Police were present and protestors eventually dispersed.”

Resciniti was then escorted to her car by police, according to David’s statement. Later that night, a group of protesters stood outside Resciniti’s home. They shouted insults, the mayor wrote, and called for Resciniti to come outside.

“Let me be absolutely clear: What happened to President Resciniti and her family after last night’s City Council meeting is reprehensible and unacceptable,” the Mayor wrote. “I have repeatedly spoken out against the leadership of multiple groups that organized last night’s protest for their vitriolic rhetoric and attempts to stir up division and distrust within the community.”*

During the public hearing, Katie Bowers, who called from her home in Binghamton, told council members she didn’t want them to be sworn at, but that it is frustrating to watch the city council overlook some residents’ concerns with the plan.

“The only reason that y’all are getting sworn at is that the community is angry,” Bowers said. “They feel left out of this process and people worked so hard over this year to just provide solutions and provide a voice to what the community really wanted.”

Bowers and other commenters said politicians in Binghamton appear to not care about residents’ fears about the police department.

The city’s reform draft includes goals for publishing annual reports on police arrests and identifying racial disparities, hiring a recruitment officer and diversifying the Binghamton police force, as well as increasing cultural competency training for officers.

Ithaca’s police reform initiative, if passed, would replace the city’s police department with a civilian-led agency, which would include both armed and unarmed first responders who would report to a civilian public safety director. There has not been a vote on the resolution.

*This story was updated with a statement from Binghamton Mayor Rich David.