BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Tensions between the Binghamton Police Department and some community activists in the city of Binghamton are running high.
Many local community organizers are angry with how Binghamton police treat residents of color. City leaders and community activists have both spoken out on the matter, but not to each other.
“There’s a context.”
Back in August, two bystanders recorded a video of officers detaining two black teens for spray painting a wall near Recreation Park.
One of the teens has developmental disabilities. In the video, three police officers bring him to the ground, search and handcuff him.
The local grassroots activist group Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow, known locally as PLOT, posted an edited version of the video to its Facebook page. It went viral online, getting more than 145,000 views.
PLOT’s version of the video is shorter, but not substantively different from the original copy. WSKG acquired the original, 20-minute video, but chose not to post it on the website because WSKG could not reach the families of the teens.
PLOT fights for racial justice. Their relationship with the Binghamton Police Department is tense, most recently, because of their outrage over incidents like this.
Since August, PLOT has hosted multiple trainings on de-escalating situations without calling the police. At trainings and online, members of PLOT encourage attendees to reject police authority.
“There’s a history. There’s a context,” said Kymel Yard, a member of PLOT. “Everybody, almost every black person I’ve ever known in life, can tell you a story of police abuse, personally.”
Yard said the police act like a fraternity and are disconnected from people of color in the area. Binghamton Police Lieutenant Alan Quinones, however, disagrees.
“I don’t think we’re a part of the community, we are the community,” Quinones said. “I live in the City of Binghamton. We are the community.”
Elected leaders’ address another incident
At a news conference back in September, three rows of police officers stood behind Binghamton Mayor Rich David, Binghamton Police Chief Joe Zikuski, District Attorney Steve Cornwell and Randy Sturtz, a trustee of the Binghamton Police Department Police Benevolent Association. There, they addressed another incident.
A week earlier, several officers responded to a domestic dispute between two black women inside the YWCA. Witnesses say police separated one of the women of color from her child and “wrestled” her to the ground.
She’s now in jail, and PLOT has taken on this incident as part as one of their primary issues. Members met with YWCA staff after the incident in September. Shortly after, the YWCA released a statement on Facebook, accusing the police officers involved of “blatant racism” and using “excessive force.”
The police internal affairs office launched an investigation into the officers’ conduct.
At the press conference, David cleared the officers involved in the YWCA incident of all misconduct allegations.
“Across the nation in cities large and small, there are very real, very important issues and discussions regarding the police and the residents they protect; how to build trust and improve community relations,” David said.
“I support those discussions and City Hall is committed to doing everything possible to foster positive relationships and ultimately better serve and protect residents. False allegations of wrongdoing only hurt progress in this area. They also undermine attention to the very serious incidents in other parts of the county where officers had to be held accountable for their legal actions.”
David and the others also asked the YWCA to apologize for accusing the police of racism.
Ultimately, the YWCA’s board of directors did issue an apology for their accusations and took down the statement on Facebook.
At the press conference, Zikuski issued a warning to the YWCA and other groups.
“The YWCA and a few other organizations that support them have their own agenda and it isn’t good,” Zikuski said. “Their agenda should be to try and put this community together, not to tear it apart and divide it, and that is exactly what they’re trying to do.”
Zikuski didn’t name PLOT explicitly, but the group knew he was addressing them. They posted their response, in the form of a meme on Facebook, the next week.
Despite what Zikuski said at the news conference, Yard maintains that his group is not trying to divide the community.
“Dissent is always responded [to] as saying, ‘It’s trying to weaken us and separate us,’” Yard said. “What is the ‘us’? Who is the ‘us’? Who are we dividing from?”
Representation in the ranks
Like a lot of cities, some experts said the racial tension in Binghamton is exacerbated by a lack of diversity on the police force.
According to the United States Census Bureau, about 25 percent of Binghamton residents are people of color.
“When you don’t have a representative sample of police officers on force, it increases the likelihood that you may have racial profiling and racially inappropriate behavior between the police and the minority community because, in part, that is the history that policing has played in this country,” said Delores Jones-Brown, former director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College.
In Binghamton, there aren’t many transparent city-supported spaces for residents of color to discuss change with government leaders. The city used to have a Human Rights Commission that investigated discrimination, but David disbanded it in early 2016 and all the seats have been vacant ever since.
While many cities have civilian review boards to investigate complaints against the police, Binghamton does not.
“If we’re talking restorative justice and restorative practice, why doesn’t the community have a seat at the table where we can all sit with each other and talk about the harm we cause you, the harm you cause me, how does that affect all of us, so we can restore the community,” said Yard.
Where public conversation begins
Although dialogue might not be happening in city spaces, some public conversation exists online. PLOT’s Facebook page serves as an outlet for conversation for more than 4,000 users.
PLOT posts many community events and meetings in the Southern Tier, but Yard acknowledged that many of PLOT’s posts serve to incite conversations about social injustice. In some posts, PLOT calls the police “racist,” “liars” and “rapists.” They have called David and Cornwell “white supremacists”.
“Expletives and Facebook pages – I mean, you already know the mindset people are coming in with,” Quinones said. “If you’re not open to a dialogue, then how can we progress forward.”
PLOT has published their demands for change online, but Yard said sitting down with the police to discuss them is not the group’s priority.
Yard said there are other local activist organizations, however, who will meet with the police.
Even so, Quinones said he doesn’t get many calls inviting discussion.
“I think reconciliation, when you touch on that, that’s a two-way street. That’s a two-party thing. Usually, I’m open to discussing things with the public,” Quinones said.
“I don’t get a lot of requests from the public to come talk and sit down, and, ‘Hey, what can we do on our part to help you guys integrate into the community and more effectively do your job.’”
But since disproportionate power lies in the hands of the police as a government institution, Yard believes it’s on the Binghamton police to take the first step to reach out to the communities of color they serve.
“I think that reconciliation should not be something the community should be responsible for. Community didn’t cause the harm,” Yard said.
“And the first step of reconciliation, restoration, any of those things requires the person who caused the harm to approach their victims in a way to be accountable and say, I caused you harm.”
Until there’s a dialogue, Jones-Brown says the community won’t be able to move forward.
“It starts with a dialogue, and it sounds like right now, on both sides, Binghamton is not in a position to have that dialogue,” Jones-Brown said. “I think that without the dialogue, it’s going to be almost impossible to move forward.”