On Saturday, April 7th, a public hearing took place in Newburgh to discuss the pervasive and escalating problem of police violence in the City. Approximately 50 people attended, at the peak of the meeting, and most were residents of Newburgh, including many young people and children.
The meeting focused on two important aspects of the issue: What have the people of Newburgh experienced in terms of police misconduct and brutality? And what can the community do to end this recurring violence?
The recent brutal killing of Michael Lembhard, a 22-year-old African American man, has ignited outrage among members of the community, and rightfully so. Attorney Michael Sussman held this public meeting in response to this tragedy and to address more broadly the issue of police brutality in the City. At the meeting, Mr. Sussman encouraged those who have witnessed or experienced police violence first hand to speak up about what has happened to them so that the community becomes aware of the atrocities taking place on the streets of Newburgh.
Members of the Lembhard family attended, as well as other parents and family members. Many shared their experiences of losing children to police brutality. Young people, too, discussed their stories and knowledge of police misconduct and violence. Most of those who shared were African American residents of Newburgh, although there were some Caucasian individuals who spoke up as well about negative experiences with the police.
Based on what people shared, the police officers of Newburgh are immediately resorting to aggression and violence, regardless of the circumstances. They are using excessive force, including the use of hand guns, against individuals with minor charges, or no charges at all. They are taking extreme, aggressive action towards residents on false assumptions about their involvement in illegal activity, and they are harassing people with threats of violence without reason. The victims of this routine excessive force are overwhelmingly people of color. Many at the meeting agreed that the police often used the n word in reference to people of color. Further, victims of police brutality, or victims’ families, have filed complaints with the City of Newburgh Police Department, and the Department has repeatedly failed to reach resolutions, or, at the very least, follow through with investigations. Understandably, Newburgh residents deeply mistrust the police as a result.
It was a very emotional discussion. People’s stories of loss and victimization were truly heart-breaking. Parents courageously spoke up about their loss of teenage children to unnecessary police violence, a pain basically incomprehensible to those who have not experience it. Clearly, Newburgh law enforcement is an extremely broken system, which continues to cause terrible grief, stress, and trauma to the people of Newburgh, and primarily people of color.
By routinely using excessive force and ignoring citizen complaints, Newburgh police have been devaluing the people of Newburgh. As Mr. Sussman asserted on Saturday, any occurrence of police misconduct is too much. If police are abusive in a small way, and nothing is done to address it, the abusive conduct will only worsen.
For the second half of the meeting, residents shared what they felt needed to be done to put an end to police abuse in Newburgh. Back in October of 2007,The Democratic Alliance of Orange County submitted a report of improvements to the City of Newburgh Police Department for the purpose of addressing this critical issue. Unfortunately, the situation in Newburgh has not changed since 2007, and the suggestions made then need to be implemented now.
The suggestions for change made on Saturday include (1) Installing video cameras in patrol cars and on the streets of Newburgh to capture incidence of police misconduct, which supervisors would review regularly; (2) The City makes a conscious effort to hire more Hispanic and African American police officers; (3) Establish a residency requirement for new police officers; (4) Establish and maintain a civilian complaint review board; (5) Conduct an extensive review of the police officers already in the Department; (6)The City of Newburgh can and should bring charges against its police officers under Civil Service Law Section 75, regardless of whether charges are brought against such police officers under federal law; (7) Require that police officers walk the streets for the purpose of becoming familiar with and relating to the people; (8) Require outside prosecutors in cases of excessive force; (9) and establish that an officer with more than 5 complaints of a similar nature must undergo investigation by the State.
Many of these suggestions were made back in 2007. Another report for improving the Newburgh Police Department, based on the October 2007 report, will be issued to the Department shortly. However, in addition to these much needed structural changes, the meeting also identified compassion and love as a critical piece of the movement. It is important for the people of Newburgh to continue to come together, support each other, and speak up about their experiences, while holding the Newburgh PD responsible for their actions.