Police reform is an issue that's been discussed at many points over the years, but it's usually brushed aside once the spotlight disappears.
In 2020, the spotlight isn't going anywhere.
After the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, there have been calls for legislative action. Two months later, those calls haven't subsided. Police reform is at the forefront, and it seems here to stay.
In the 24th Congressional District, Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko and Democratic challenger Dana Balter have differing views of what police reform should like and the meaning of the "defund the police" movement.
The Citizen asked the candidates about police reform for this latest installment of "On the Issues."
Balter, D-Syracuse, supports a national use of force policy for police departments and more transparency in police union contracts. She has previously stated her support of having citizen review boards oversee departments.
She also wants to "demilitarize" police departments. Many departments have received surplus equipment from the military, a practice Balter thinks Congress needs to end.
Along with police reforms, she supports various criminal justice reforms, including a ban on private prisons and detention centers, ending mass incarceration, legalizing marijuana and expunging criminal records of individuals with marijuana-related convictions.
"There's a lot of work to be done there and I think those kinds of reforms are just part of the larger picture of necessary reforms to the criminal legal system so that it is a more just system," Balter told The Citizen.
In her response, Balter largely focused on the "defund the police" movement. There are different interpretations of what defund the police means, but most say it's about diverting some funds from the police departments to community organizations or social service departments that are better equipped to respond to homelessness, mental health concerns and other societal problems.
What defund the police is not, according to Balter, is a call to abolish police departments. While there are those who hold that opinion, she isn't one of them.
"What we're talking about is thinking more carefully about what public safety and community safety means and not asking police officers and police departments to do things that they are not qualified for," she said. "Right now, we leave it to police officers, oftentimes, to deal with mental health crises. They're not qualified to do that. That is not good for the person who's suffering from a mental health crisis and it's not good for the officer.
"We often ask police officers to deal with the crisis of domestic violence, which is something they're not qualified to handle. We ask them to deal with the problem of homelessness, which is not something that they are qualified to handle. We have organizations and experts in all of these areas who provide really good services, and we need to adequately fund those services. That will help make our communities safer."
Police departments need to be focused on crime, Balter continued, and that will require reforms to how the agencies function.
"But when we talk about funding, the conversation shouldn't be about should we take funding away from the police department," Balter said. "The conversation should be about what do we need our police to do? What is within their realm of expertise? What are they good at doing? How do they best contribute to public safety? And then we make sure that we give them enough resources to get that job done."
When talking about police reform, though, Balter emphasized the need to fund other areas, whether it's resources to respond to domestic violence incidents or to assist individuals with mental health disorders.
While she supports adequate funding for police departments, she believes the departments that oversee programs that address various issues, such as domestic violence, homelessness and mental health, need adequate funding too.
"It's a different way to think about this question and if we reorient our thinking that way and if we have that conversation instead, then we are all working toward the goal of community safety and we're going to get better outcomes for everybody," Balter said.
Before being elected to Congress in 2014, Katko, R-Camillus, was a federal prosecutor. He was an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted a variety of cases over his career, including a crackdown on gang violence in the Syracuse area.
But as police reform emerges as a major subject for the federal government to consider and a campaign issue ahead of the 2020 elections, there is one case that Katko has discussed a lot in interviews with the press. He prosecuted four Schenectady police officers accused of public corruption. The officers were convicted.
"Who's got more experience in this area?" Katko said, comparing his record to Balter's. "I prosecuted corrupt cops in one of the most landmark police corruption cases in New York state history. I also worked with cops, side-by-side, every day. I know there's good cops and I know when there's bad cops."
He has strong feelings about the officer who is facing murder charges for killing Floyd. He noted that there were 17 complaints against the officer over the course of his career, but he was still allowed to work. That frustrates Katko, who believes there needs to be better accountability and improved methods of removing bad police officers from departments.
Katko thinks that any police reform legislation should include an emphasis on community policing. He also wants enforceable standards for police departments and a process for penalizing agencies that don't follow the guidelines.
The House voted in June on a police reform proposal, but Katko opposed the measure. After the vote, he described the legislation as a "partisan bill" and criticized Democrats and Republicans for not negotiating a compromise that could be approved by the House and Senate.
He is supporting a competing GOP bill that, he says, includes some of the provisions supported by Democrats.
Katko has been critical of calls to defund the police. In an interview with The Citizen, he said it's "beyond dangerous and unrealistic."
"You wait and see what happens in New York City when they cut their budget by one-sixth and that is ground zero for terrorism in this country," Katko said. "That petrifies me."
Despite his opposition to defunding the police, Katko says he supports Black Lives Matter and acknowledges "that there is some systemic racism we gotta deal with." He reiterated his support for police reform and revealed that he had conversations with U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, about legislation in the House.
"She reached out to me to seek my input on this issue because she knows I can be trusted with my input," he said.
Although he disagrees with the "defund the police" movement, he does seem to support one of its main tenets — that communities need more funding. He said he's had discussions with NAACP leaders in central New York who have made that argument to him.
"But to take money away from cops protecting people from the bad guys is true insanity," Katko added.
Katko also repeated his opposition to the state's bail reform law, which he's raised as an issue in the race against Balter. While Balter says the change was needed to prevent economic disparities in who is being held in jail and who can be released, Katko thinks the law, which has been amended, poses a threat to communities.
At the federal level, Katko is seeking improvements to pre-trial release programs. The legislation would direct the Government Accountability Office to provide data on crimes committed by individuals awaiting trial in federal, state and local courts, review monitoring practices and detail the response protocols when an individual tampers with a monitoring device. The GAO would issue recommendations to improve pre-trial release services.
Katko said concerns about pre-trial monitoring are a bigger issue now with the state's bail reform law. He thinks his bill is a "great start" to addressing some of those problems.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
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