UTICA, NY – Last Monday, January 29th, the City of Utica’s Civilian Public Safety Advisory Board hosted a town hall at the Munson Museum in Utica. What could have been a room of strangers arguing across socio-political lines, erupting into a showdown of fierce disagreements and personal attacks, like many town halls in an era of political division, was instead a relatively collaborative evening focused on resolving Utica’s public safety issues. Community members came together to enter into dialogue with local law enforcement and elected officials about gun violence, youth programs, poverty, housing issues, and other topics affecting their neighborhoods.
What’s the Utica Civilian Public Safety Advisory Board?
The City of Utica, under former Mayor Rob Palmieri (D), formed the advisory board in response to mandates from NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D) administration in the wake of the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Multiple speakers at the town hall cited one leader – current Codes Commissioner Marques Phillips – as a key player in forming the body.
Phillips told the crowd, “We knew civilian oversight was going to be tough because civilian oversight has been tough everywhere around us. Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester; mayors aren't talking to police, police and the community are protesting each other and arguing.”
To avoid those issues, Phillips said, Utica sought models from across the country and settled on its current version that includes an audit function and membership composed of three mayoral appointments, three Common Council appointments, a local NAACP appointment, and two local non-profit appointments. The board’s charter defines its role as establishing “public safety oversight that couples an audit function with citizen oversight in an effort to improve accountability and transparency.”
The board’s members include:
Darlene Mack Brown
Utica Police Department (UPD) Chief Mark Williams told the Monitor that while the process of creating the board had some difficult moments, once conversations moved from national policing issues to local ones, “we started having very productive conversations with the members, and they were great.” Williams also said he views the board as “not an adversarial relationship, but one that can be a liaison for us and the public.”
“I was very pleased,” Williams said of the town hall.
The advisory board planned for the main topic of the evening’s discussion to be about “public safety policies, community policing, and strategies to enhance safety and well-being.” The town hall began with the board sharing details on the police compliment and complaint form and a new system of auditing the UPD.
Quickly, the conversation moved from oversight of public safety departments to broader discussions about violence in the community. Utica long-time residents shared concerns about deeper salient issues surrounding gun violence, suggestions for upgrading community outreach efforts, and critical perspectives on changes that all point to the same vision of community safety through collective community action.
“Rather than become a meeting regarding police-community issues, it now became more of a ‘what's being done about gunfire,’” Williams told the Monitor. In the last month, two shootings – each killing a teenager – have increased public concern about youth violence.
Several older residents recalled a time when the city’s youth could have a good time at local community clubs that provided after-school programs or recreational activities at the local roller skating rink or community basketball courts. Now, several residents said, many of Utica’s youth end up with little to do and find themselves in potentially violent situations. Both the older generation and younger Utica residents agreed that there are not enough City programs or community centers to keep young people off the streets and out of crime.
One attendee, Hawa Peters, president of Utica Royalties, said the city has some programs but could use more funding and support. Peters said many people don’t know how to access the programs, and, “Programs like mine and other programs, we need more support, we need more help. We need volunteers, and we definitely need more funding to grow more of our programs.”
Most in attendance agreed that community centers and programs were necessary spaces that provide a positive outlet for Utica’s youth – ideas new mayor Michael Galime (R) expressly supported.
While agreeing that such centers and programs do matter, Kamal Fardan posed the question to everyone: “How do we get together when they pulling out guns and shooting? I don’t feel safe going to a community center.”
Fardan argued that public service professionals and volunteers from the outside coming into the city to help with the gun violence in Utica can only do so much because they “can’t identify with these people in the street.” Recognizing that while local, well-meaning non-profit organizations can provide valuable support, Fardan insisted that “we need somebody from the street to go to the street,” too.
A formerly incarcerated resident of Utica, Fardan said that credibility with many young people at risk of being involved in violence is earned through serving time. “If they’re going to listen to anyone, it’s going to be the people they respect. And, unfortunately, they don’t respect people who don’t have a history in the street, who did a lot of time. That’s their value.” But, that value is problematic, says Fardan, and he has a plan to change that. Fardan envisions a team of formerly incarcerated Utica residents becoming community role models for the local youth, educating them about the challenges of life after prison and showing them alternatives to gun violence.
Poverty and Housing
Rev. Sharon Baugh called the room’s attention to poverty, urging leaders present to read Poverty, By America, a book by sociologist Matthew Desmond that describes poverty as a “tightly woven knot of social maladies.” Rev. Baugh asserted that “if we don’t solve the poverty problem, we can’t solve the other problems.”
According to the US Census Bureau, 28.2% of Uticans experience poverty compared to 11.5% nationally.
Another speaker who said they were a lifelong Utica resident, Aisha, said, “We have a lot of slumlords here in Utica.”
“We have people who do not take care of their property, but they want to capitalize off of the people who rent from them. I know because I was placed in that situation,” Aisha said.
A 2022 housing study commissioned by the City found that 87% of Uticans earning less than $20,000 were cost-burdened (spent more than 30% of income) by their housing. Further, a 2020 consultant report found that “The City’s key challenge is less with vacant and abandoned properties (which include structures and lots) and more with occupied substandard rental properties.”
Residents unanimously suggested a need for more collective community involvement in creating a neighborhood that feels safe and connected. One step towards realizing that goal, some attendees and Chief Williams said, is making it easier for the UDP to track and close cases of gun-related violence.
According to Chief Williams, until now the UDP has used business and home camera footage to investigate shootings, but it takes hundreds of hours to watch through the footage and gather meaningful evidence. While the investigator team has been successful in examining footage for proper evidence, Chief Williams says “it takes a lot of resources [and] a lot of time.” It's challenging for the UDP to close homicide cases without community cooperation. Chief Williams cited that the FBI found the closure rate for homicide cases to be 52.3% nationally and is declining because “people aren’t talking to the police,” though Utica’s closure rate has been much higher. He said people aren’t talking because they’re afraid of becoming victims of retaliation.
To compensate for limited communications between the police and Utica residents about shootings and to help the community overall feel safer, Williams told the audience, the UDP is working with Verizon and National Grid to install cameras on street poles in compliance with their guidelines. These cameras won’t just go up anywhere; Williams said they’ll be strategically positioned at locations that the UDP’s data scientist research team partners, using computational models and crime statistics, have pinpointed as optimal locations for tracking crime in the city.
Asked by the Monitor about the status of a program initiated in 2021 to respond to mental health calls with social workers, Williams said he wished there were more. “But the reality is that social workers for the most part, the ones we've talked to, there's not a lot of field work done” by them. He touted the ongoing partnership as successful, particularly with a therapy dog, as instances of mental health-related calls have increased over the years.
Some urged that key social support, rather than more policing, was the answer. Enoshja Ruffin, a community organizer with Utica’s chapter of Citizen Action of New York and a mother, told the crowd, “If we really want to stop the gun violence and all of these things, we need to address poverty, lack of childcare, lack of policies, and the basic things that we need to survive as people.” She asserted, “We don't need more police in schools and our communities; we need more resources, more social workers, more healthcare providers, more mentors in the community.”
This first town hall meeting saw a strong turn out. Frustrated with what seems to be an intractable problem in the city, Utica residents have voiced significant concerns connected to poverty and gun violence as well as identified community-centered outreach and programs to confront deeper issues underlying the violence. Considering the issue from the vantage point of overall community safety, UDP has enlisted the support of computational experts to increase the efficiency of the department’s investigative footage resources and success-rate at tracking and closing gun-related violence cases. The Utica Civilian Public Safety Board plans to hold the next town hall later this year and continue the conversation. Tim Riker, a public safety consultant at this past town hall, didn’t want to end the evening without leaving attendees with something to think about, specifically that many proposals at the meeting and some of the city’s actions were “reactionary,” and asked “what’s the long-term vision?” That question may be interpreted in two ways: What’s the vision for the Utica community, and what’s the vision for the security of its residents? If there’s one thing for sure, the Utica community has all hands on deck and, as evidenced by the creation of the Board as well as the number of attendees, from local residents to elected officials, it’s committed to building a safe community.