Poughkeepsie Common Council Chairperson Sarah Salem voiced surprise that police reform discussions with the city police officers’ union turned sour, let alone personal.
In a press release Thursday announcing their zero confidence vote on Salem, leaders of the Poughkeepsie Police Benevolent Association wrote that Salem and another councilmember, Evan Menist, are “anti-police” and “anti-public safety,” claiming they have cut the union out of police reform discussions.
“What I’ve learned in politics is that it often turns personal,” Salem said during an interview with Spectrum News Thursday afternoon.
“Despite a surge in violent crime and a spike in gun violence and homicides, Salem and Menist’s priorities are defunding the police, passing the Right to Know Act and the formation of a civilian review board without any dialogue with the PBA or the Police Department command staff,” PBA Vice President Chris Libolt said in the release.
Salem said council members have had numerous conversations with union leaders about the already-passed "Right To Know Act" and upcoming police reform items such as formation of the civilian board.
Their most recent meeting with union leaders on police reform was in mid-July just before the passage of the Right To Know Act, Salem said, and that more meetings on other police reform were planned.
Union leaders also said that because Salem was charged with DWI following a car crash in February, and the case is still being resolved, the council chair should not vote on any “police matters” until the case is closed.
“It is the belief of the PBA that Salem is unable to be neutral, fair, and unbiased in matters pertaining to the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department and she clearly has a strong vendetta,” Libolt said in the release.
“I'm going through the judicial process as any other member of the community has to go through,” Salem said. “That does not influence my decision-making. I’ve been working on the Right to Know Act for two years. I’ve been working on community and safety reform for as long as I’ve been in Poughkeepsie.”
Union leaders shared recent crime statistics as part of their argument that Salem and Menist are “misguided” for not shifting their focus to standard crime-fighting from police reform.
According to their release, there were 41 “shots fired” calls, six people shot, 16 stabbings, and nine robberies in Poughkeepsie since June 1.
“The PBA can no longer remain silent while innocent people are being victimized in the streets,” union leaders said. “These anti-public safety council members are misrepresenting our department and the uniformed men and women who proudly serve this City.”
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Menist said he too was surprised by the union’s assaults on him.
“They said I’m primarily focused on defunding the police, which is not something that I have ever said,” he said.
Menist added that his focus is on improving the police-community relationship, which he believes will help improve cooperation and solve crimes.
“Increasing that public trust is absolutely imperative for increasing public safety,” he said.
Menist added that the union’s claim that forming a civilian police review board would be “fiscally irresponsible” did not make sense to him, since the board members would not be paid.
“They must be misreading the [proposed] law,” Menist said.
Union leaders did not respond to a message from Spectrum News seeking clarification.
Salem was also surprised at the union’s resistance to a civilian review board, since forming one would be in direct accordance with a June 12 executive order on police reform from Governor Andrew Cuomo. The order’s first bullet point states that police forces must adopt plans that have “engaged stakeholders in a public and open process on police strategies and tools,” and submit their fully vetted plans by April 1.
Several Hudson Valley municipalities are creating civilian review boards which would review complaints against officers, recommend discipline, and in some cases, may be able to subpoena records and witnesses.
“That’s exactly what we’re working on in the city of Poughkeepsie,” Salem said. “We’re not doing it alone. We’re doing it in communication with the community and the police force.”
“If we’re going to resort to ad hominem attacks, we’re not going to end up having any progress,” Menist said of the union’s remarks. “Discourse breeds progress.”
Police Chief Thomas Pape was not immediately available Thursday to address the union leaders’ comments. Mayor Rob Rolison has not responded to numerous calls seeking comment.
A public hearing on the council’s plans to create a civilian advisory board is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday.