Citizen Police Interface Committee an Important Step for Saranac Lake

Submitted by Chris Morris

The Saranac Lake Village Board of Trustees has issued a call for letters of interest to join its new Citizen Police Interface Committee.

Having had the privilege to serve on the village’s Police Review Committee — charged with creating a plan in accordance with the governor’s Executive Order 203 on Police Reform and Reinvention — I feel strongly that the Interface Committee is one of the most important outcomes of the eight-month process.

According to the EO203 plan itself and a press release issued by the village — which, in full disclosure, I helped author — the committee’s purpose is “to provide a mechanism for breaking down barriers and building a bridge between the Saranac Lake Police Department and citizens of Saranac Lake and its surrounding communities, and to enable ongoing constructive communication, enhance public safety and embrace and support a respect for the diversity of residents and visitors.”

As noted by village Trustee Melinda Little, the call to establish a standing civilian committee on police and public safety had strong support from people who responded to a survey issued last fall, and was often brought up as a recommendation by those who attended public hearings throughout the EO203 process. The Interface Committee does not go as far as to have oversight on personnel matters nor the ability to write policy, but it does provide a vehicle for the public to review and comment on how the police department operates and to provide feedback through a neutral party.

This committee will be meaningful and impactful for a variety of reasons, but I will call out three items in particular:

  1. The ongoing contract with Lexipol.
    This private company, used by law enforcement agencies nationwide, continues to come under scrutiny for writing policies that protect police officers in cases of excessive force, shooting at moving vehicles, and officer-involved shootings. Despite objections from citizens here, and mounting evidence that Lexipol does not have the public’s best interests in mind, the village of Saranac Lake, and other agencies across New York State, continue to utilize Lexipol’s services for writing policy manuals. Whether the village renews its contract with Lexipol remains to be seen, but in any event, the Interface Committee will be a means to provide transparency and field concerns from the public. (Read more about Lexipol in this recent USA Today piece.)
  2. Communications with marginalized groups and individuals in our community.
    Throughout the EO203 process, it became clear that not everyone feels comfortable bringing concerns directly to law enforcement or speaking during public meetings. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Saranac Lake’s police force, but it is true that power dynamics can make speaking freely difficult, especially for individuals with mental health issues, Black people and people of color, Indigenous peoples, and the LGBTQ+ community. This committee has the ability to host forums with these individuals and groups and carry their message back to village officials and the police department.
  3. Turnover among village staff and trustees.
    In the time that’s elapsed from when the village adopted the EO203 recommendations and submitted them to the state, one new trustee was elected to the board, and James Joyce stepped down as police chief. Joyce was a key part of the EO203 process — with a new interim chief in place, the Interface Committee will play a crucial role in providing continuity and oversight of the recommendations to make sure the village is following the plan. To be clear: I am not suggesting that the village won’t honor the recommendations of the plan. But having a mechanism in place to track progress and report to the community is important nonetheless.

As to the roles and responsibilities of the committee, the following information comes directly from the village’s press release:

  • The Interface Committee will consist of seven volunteer members, appointed by the village Board of Trustees. Every effort will be made to recruit a committee as diverse as possible, ideally with representation from organizations such as the Saranac Lake Youth Center, North Country Community College, Paul Smith’s College, the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance, the Harrietstown Housing Authority, St. Joseph’s, and other organizations and individuals who engage with local police. Additionally, trustees hope to recruit volunteers that represent diverse backgrounds.
  • Committee members will serve for two-year, staggered terms to ensure continuity, and members can serve no more than two terms consecutively.
  • Meetings will be held once a month, with the option of calling additional meetings as needed.

More details on the Citizen Police Interface Committee can be obtained by contacting Trustee Little at trusteelittle@saranaclakeny.gov or Village Manager John Sweeney at manager@saranaclakeny.gov. Letters of interest can be submitted to Village Clerk Kareen Tyler, Village of Saranac Lake, 39 Main St., Saranac Lake, NY 12983.