In the second of our four-part Q&A series with the Syracuse police chief, Kenton Buckner reveals that he will unveil a new use-of-force policy within the next 30 days and also talks about how he hopes to better engage the Citizen Review Board.
Q: There was a group of activists meeting to discuss use of force by officers in the SPD. The group’s mission was to see the policy amended to not only cover when it was OK to use force, but to also feature detailed guidelines on how force could be avoided to begin with. What do you think of this idea?
A: I don’t know of a professional police organization that doesn’t train on when you can and cannot use force. That makes no sense. Part of that to me, listening to you at a distance, it sounds like part ignorance on the part of the public on what the police actually train on, which to me says there’s an opportunity for improvement in illuminating (for the public) the curriculum that we have for the training academy on the sensitive topics that are key to the community and what we have in place to try to protect the public from officers kind of developing their own agenda or doing something that would be illegal. We’re in the process of revamping our use-of-force policy, and I anticipate the new policy will be ready here over the next 30 days.
We will roll it out where the public can see it for themselves.
Q. I have never seen the policy itself. Does it currently include guidelines about steps to avoid the use of force?
A: The escalation, and taking other things into account, is a part of any use-of-force policy. Here’s the problem: There is no policy for the public. If I’m having an issue with this young lady who’s leaving Marshall Street and she’s intoxicated and she’s decided to do whatever she is doing, I’m responding to this level of resistance. So I can have all of these things that say, “You shall not hit a person in the head” — there was something written in the paper that someone recommended that we have a policy that says you shouldn’t be able to hit someone in the head. Well, that sounds good in a climate-controlled room. “Hey, that’s reasonable.” But if you’re in the business of wrestling with lions, it’s very difficult to tell someone, “Well, don’t hit the lion in the head when he’s on top of you.” You’re trying to get this lion off of you. So there’s always suggestions about what we should be doing and how we should do it. We should always be legal, we should always be compassionate, we should always use force as a last option, we should always try to de-escalate the individual that we’re encountering. But sometimes that doesn’t work. And sometimes this job is ugly. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t legal and it wasn’t necessary.
Q: Is the written use-of-force policy something folks can get their hands on if they want to read it?
A: I think our policies should be FOI-able, you should be able to get a copy of that. I can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t. But again, New York law may be different. But I would think our policies would totally be subject to that (Freedom of Information) law. I would think. You’re a reporter. Have you ever FOI’ed a policy?
—Q: Well, my question is simply that it seems like it’s something that would be on your website. Someone wouldn’t have to FOI it.
A: I can tell you it’s not on our website. I’ve worked for departments, my two previous, where we had key policies online. But I’ve been here 60, 70 days — I can’t turn the ship. And part of the reason why is because of what? I’m sitting here doing interviews every day.
Q: Well you’re reaching several thousand people with this interview. It’s good, efficient use of your time.
A: We’ll see.
Q: But you know what I’m asking. It would seem like I could go to a website and read this.
A: I think that you are highlighting an intelligent observation and request that the policies and procedures utilized by the public safety entity for Syracuse should be readily available to the people that we serve. I don’t disagree with you. Now I’ve got to talk to my legal people. I’ve got a union who’s going to be on my shoulder. There’s a lot of things that you want to do as a chief that there are hoops you have to jump through to do something that you would say, “Well, what the hell’s wrong with that?” It’s not that simple
Q: Have you met any folks from the Citizen Review Board and thought about your relationship with them?
A: Yes, I’ve met (administrator) Ranette (Releford) and I think the gentleman who is kind of a co-chair or a chair of the program. I know Ranette is seen as the administrator of it. Clifford (Ryan) of course is a member. I think I’ve met one or two other members that I can’t recall their name. I can tell you that in my preliminary summary of the police and CRB issue, I think that by design, unintentionally, it’s not working. I think that there are some opportunities for improvement in the language that kind of tells each side what they are supposed to do. I think that needs to be revamped.
We’re in the process of getting ready to meet on both sides of the aisle to give the Common Council something to review to consider changes. One of the things that I take issue with is that we as a police department are not being as transparent as we possibly should, and some of that may be our mistrust of that system. On the other side of that, I don’t like the fact that there is a totally independent other investigation (by CRB), because you’re subjecting the officers to almost a double jeopardy kind of situation to where now they’re having to come in and give statements about something else. To now where if you have one word or something that someone deems slightly different than the statement that you gave over here, when you’re in civil court over some of these lawsuits, we’re seeing the defense attorneys are taking testimony or statements from CRB and using it against the city in some of the civil litigation. So, I understand why the officers — frustratingly to the public and to the CRB — are exercising their due-process right not to give a statement. And that’s their right. Whether we like it or not you can’t penalize someone for exercising something that the process says you have a right to do.
But I think it clogs up the system. I think it continues to feed this animal of mistrust, and I think that if we are more transparent about what we are doing over here, I think CRB will be able to do its job in a more efficient way and help with that and then I think that if they will agree to review my investigation, and if there’s something else that maybe I didn’t cover or that I should have covered that they can ask the appropriate questions without having another quote/unquote “investigation.” Or, if you’re going to do investigations on that side at least have people who have knowledge, skills and abilities, trainings, certifications in investigations. There are a lot of very good people on that committee who certainly want to see Syracuse succeed, but they have no experience, no background in doing an investigation.
So, I understand both sides of the argument, but I have to look in the mirror first, which is I think that we can be more transparent. But, again, I have to do that in a legal way because the union’s argument is that we can only share limited information with them (CRB). In my conversation with my corporate counsel, we believe maybe in some regards the union may be right but in many regards that’s not true because that (CRB) is considered a government entity, so the same things that we’d be able to share with government, the CRB should be given.
And I always use a visible example that if I make a decision on an officer and if I exonerate the officer for the actions that he was accused of, and I did it upon these three things that I based that decision upon, then when Ranette asks “OK, can we see the file so that we can see what you all did because we have that complaint over here?” And then we’re surprised when she comes to a different conclusion. Well, we didn’t give her everything that we had to come to my conclusion. So it’s not fair; that’s my frustrating part on our side of the aisle. If I’m doing business the right way, why would I have a problem with giving her the file? “Here’s everything. Take a look at it.” And I think that’s a big step on our part. We need to fix that.
Q: I think everyone would agree it hasn’t worked great so far.
A: For a long time
Q: There are many of these citizen boards around the country.
A: There are. And I think, too, it should be said that even though there’s a lot of publicity that comes out about the disagreements, more often than not they clear the officer of any wrongdoing. There’s only a smaller percentage of cases where they look at it and feel like the officer did something wrong. And I don’t think the public knows or even understands that part of it because I think sometimes the CRB gets a bad rap that they’re anti-police or out to get police when in fact they clearly clear more officers than they sustain (complaints).
Q: They do put out an annual report that shows that.
A: Yes. But if you talk to people, some people think they’re out to get police. “Well, (you think that) based upon what?”
Q: But it doesn’t come down to a discussion of those cases where cops are cleared or supported by the CRB.
Q: I guess that is the nature of the beast.
A: It’s the three or four that make the news that we say, “Oh, wow.”
Q: But those are the ones that create all the tension.
A: It is. It only takes one “good” one.
Q: But you see a way, even on those …
A: I see a way to improve this process. I don’t know we’ll ever have a process where everyone will be happy. But I think if we put intelligent people in a room, we should be able to improve the process.
Q: Do you see officers ever appearing before the CRB?
A: That’s huge. I think a lot of that will depend upon guidance and leadership provided by the union. Because we can go in a room and discuss all day what we believe is a fair process and if the union doesn’t believe that it’s fair or that they’d rather not participate, we’re in a union state.
Q: I saw you quoted saying, “People treat you how you allow them to treat you. One of my personal things is never, ever, ever make a complaint with someone who answers the phone. But instead talk to someone higher up.”
A: I think the context of that situation was about if you feel like the government, police or certain officials are not serving you or giving you what you deserve as a community, don’t discuss your problem or complaint with the person who answered the phone. You want to speak with the person in that office who has the pen. And that’s where you get problems solved. And people who get things done in their community know and understand that. So when you go down there to that office, ask to speak to the captain or the division commander in that division to let them know that this is the third time you’ve called about this crack house in your neighborhood or why it’s six months later and nothing’s been done about it. Hold that person accountable. And then who does that person report to? Because people who understand how to engage people like me, they’re not going to let you give them lip service. They’re going to say, “When can I follow back up with you? And what number should I call to let you know if I continue to see something?” But we have to train certain sections of our community to do that because they don’t even realize the power that they have. You’re the citizen. We serve you. My salary comes from your taxes.
Q: But does some training have to happen on the other side of the desk?
A: I think so. That’s a part of the neighborhood watch thing and that collective impact. When I was at a meeting up in Strathmore, I told them that I would maybe either bring people to their meeting or have some of their officials go with me to other parts of the city who don’t understand how you get a sidewalk fixed. You don’t send one email. You send 150 emails to Mayor Walsh or Kenton Buckner to say, “Hey, we’ve got a problem over here, in such and such, and when are you all going to do something to that store down here that’s selling alcohol to minors?” Now, if I get 50 of those, do you think something’s going to happen? Of course it is. But there are certain people in our community who don’t even understand the power that they have, particularly when they work together. So that’s what that statement is about. Don’t talk to the person who is answering the phone who you feel like is blowing you off. Talk to the head person in that building.
Q: I think some times people are hesitant when dealing with the police.
A: There’s some intimidation, exactly right. Which is why I try to talk to them about empowering yourselves or when we try to galvanize the community with the partnership and the prevention and the problem-solving. That’s what that whole community policing (is about) and there’s a certain empowerment piece of that, that “you all have power, if you learn how to exercise it.”
Q: So if folks call the police department and say, “I want to talk with the officer with the pen …. ”
A: Do more than call us. Hold the police department accountable to your community.
Q: How? In a very literal way, do what, again?
A: Know who is responsible. So that at a community level, this is what decentralizing this police department does. You live in the southeast section of our city. Who is the division commander for that section? I can tell you it’s Captain Lynch. When you have a problem you need to be talking to Captain Lynch. Directly. You tell them, “I want Captain Lynch to call me back.” That’s where you start. If Captain Lynch doesn’t satisfy what you’ve asked him to do, then you call headquarters: “Chief, I’ve met with Captain Lynch twice and we still have a problem. There’s still illegal dumping behind my house. I’ve got pictures of it, we’ve got the license plate of the truck that’s coming through here and doing it, and we’d like to know what we can get done.” (Be) relentless about making sure that gets done. And if I don’t respond to you, go to the mayor.