The New York Attorney General’s Office’s had one last stop on its weeklong visit to Syracuse in May: the Southwest Community Center on South Avenue.

Larry Williams, the center’s director, first spotted the office’s representatives because they looked lost. They dressed in jeans and T-shirts and wore “deer in the headlights” expressions on their faces.

He introduced himself, unsure of who they were. They told him they were there from the AG’s office, searching for residents’ unscripted experiences with Syracuse police.

Williams volunteered to share his own.

As a 63-year-old Black man who has a prominent role in the city, he said he’s been stopped by police and left feeling as if officers see him as being on the “opposite side.”

“They respond to color, not the citizenship,” Williams said. “I don’t get the benefit of being Mr. Williams, the advocate.”

Williams told the state representatives what many others echoed during the week of meetings with the AG’s office earlier this spring, according to interviews with 10 people who met with the office: The Syracuse Police Department needs help fixing the way it polices communities of color.

More than 30 community leaders, residents and officials met with the AG’s office during its visit. Many of them told AG’s representatives police treat Syracuse like a “combat zone.” They said officers assume the worst when interacting with Black residents and the department frequently ignores the Citizen Review Board, the watchdog agency set up to hold officers accountable.

The meetings marked a flurry of activity after a more than two-year investigation into SPD.

In May, the AG’s office met with:

  • Citizen Review Board officials
  • Current and former police officers
  • Representatives from Syracuse Police Abolition And Radical Revisioning Coalition (SPAARC), Rebirth SYR, CNY Solidarity, Alliance for Communities Transforming Syracuse, Center for Court Innovation
  • City of Syracuse Police Reform Oversight Committee
  • Syracuse Police Benevolent Association President Joseph Moran
  • Southwest Community Center officials

Investigators told participants in one meeting the AG’s office hopes to finish the investigation by the end of the year. The attorney general’s office declined to comment for this story.

City officials confirmed they participated in a site visit from the AG’s office on May 16. As part of the visit, the AG’s office attended police training sessions. Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens and Chief Joseph Cecile also met with the AG’s office.

“I view this investigation with the AG as a partnership with the shared goal of continuously improving policing in our community,” Cecile said in a statement to Central Current.

‘Don’t worry about probable cause’

Former Syracuse police officer John Baggett told AG’s investigators he learned from veteran officers as a young cop in field training that it’s OK to break the rules.

Baggett’s training officer told him that any stop could be justified, he said.

“Don’t worry about probable cause,” he recalled the officer telling him.

The instruction shook Baggett. His training officer had told him it was OK to violate rights in place to protect people from being falsely accused of crimes.

Five other current and former officers and recruits in Baggett’s meeting told the AG’s office they had similar experiences in training, Baggett said.

AG’s office representatives asked about racism Black officers faced at SPD, according to Baggett.

He told investigators officers who are not white face a harder road than those who are. They’re often more harshly reviewed in field training, asked to remove themselves from the training process and less likely to get promoted once they’re in the department, he said.

“For anyone coming on in the future, things gotta change,” he said.

Baggett participated in one of at least six meetings the AG’s office had with community members in Syracuse in May. His meeting with the AG’s office involved only current and former police officers. Most meetings happened in small group sessions, participants told Central Current.

Community members said the AG’s office representatives asked broad questions about policing in Syracuse. They often gave interviewees room to direct the conversation.

“This was the most robust community engagement on their part since the investigation started,” said Andrew Croom, a SPAARC spokesman.

Syracuse police’s detention of an 8-year-old after he was accused of stealing a bag of chips – a moment that gained national attention in April – came up in nearly all meetings with community groups, Johnson and others interviewed said.

Peter McCarthy, the former Citizen Review Board chair and a current member of activist group CNY Solidarity, told the AG’s office that the 8-year-old’s detention was characteristic of what he saw from Syracuse police as the board chair.

Officers treat the city like a “combat zone,” he said.

“That officer did what he was trained to do,” McCarthy said he told the AG’s office, “which is not to say he did the right thing.”

Kayla Johnson, a former Common Council candidate and community advocate, detailed her interactions with Syracuse police and her view that the department has unfairly treated Black residents.

She described her own arrest in February 2021 to investigators.

Officers handcuffed Johnson charged her with a misdemeanor after officers told her to move away from a crime scene. The case was transferred to Onondaga County Court and was supposed to go to trial in May but has been delayed, Johnson said.

She told the AG’s office that officers often don’t comply with a recent law created by the Common Council requiring officers to hand out business cards after interactions with police.

Residents also find it difficult to file a complaint with the CRB, Johnson told the AG’s office. Residents often don’t see enough action from the board to hold the department accountable, she told investigators.

Syracuse Police headquarters on South State Street in downtown Syracuse. Credit: Julie McMahon

Complaint backlog: ‘Here’s where they’re slacking’

AG’s office representatives met with about six members of the Citizen Review Board during its week in Syracuse, according to board member Cliff Ryans.

Ryans told the AG’s office the board hasn’t been able to hold officers accountable because of a case backlog that has persisted for the last few years. 

“Here’s where they’re slacking: Getting cases, complaints to the CRB in a timely manner,” Ryans said, referring to the police department.

In 2020, the board had a 48-case backlog, including 24 cases that had been lost by the police department. Officers found culpable of wrongdoing could not be disciplined because state law requires officers to be disciplined within 18 months of an incident.

The AG’s office asked board members whether it tracked officers who get repeat complaints, Ryans said. Officials didn’t ask for officers’ names, but the board confirmed they do track officers with repeat complaints.

CRB administrator Ranette Releford told the AG’s office that communication with the department improved under former Chief Kenton Buckner.  

The CRB sued the police department under Buckner’s predecessor Frank Fowler to get responses to complaints. A liaison committee between the CRB and the department rarely met with Fowler as chief.

Buckner re-established the liaison committee and improved the flow of documents to the board, Releford said.

“We would like to see the progress continue,” Releford said she told the AG’s office.

The board has cooperated with the AG’s investigation since it started. Releford said the AG’s office requested case files from the CRB through November 2021.

Pattern-or-practice investigation

Emails between the AG’s office and community members hint at the scope of the investigation and what possible resolutions could be.

“The investigation seeks to determine whether the SPD complies with its legal and constitutional policing obligations and whether it engages in policies or practices that negatively impact communities of color in Syracuse,” an email obtained by Central Current said.

The AG’s office conducts pattern-or-practice investigations that sometimes end with consent decrees or assurances of discontinuance. Those agreements typically require departments or agencies to end certain practices or policies in a specified timeframe.

Civil rights lawyers often handle those investigations. Joel Marrero, who participated in interviews with community members according to those interviewed, works for the attorney general’s Civil Rights Bureau.  

David Chaplin, a mayoral appointee to the city’s Police Reform Oversight Committee, said his group could help with a resolution to the AG’s investigation if it is about patterns and practices. The committee already plans to require the department to report disciplinary information about officers, for example.

Syracuse Police Chief Cecile said the city will continue to cooperate with the AG’s investigation by providing documents, meetings and interviews.

“It is my hope that this investigation will provide useful insight for future efforts to leverage and advance improvements made and to further modernize our department to be a model for agencies across the state,” Cecile said.

Croom, the SPAARC spokesman, said the group doesn’t have any hopes or expectations for the investigation. SPAARC believes the investigation will confirm its prior criticisms of the department, Croom said.  

The AG’s office’s impromptu visit to Southwest Community Center gave Williams confidence in the good-faith effort of the people conducting the investigation.

But investigators have come and gone before.

“We’ll see,” Williams said.

“When we start efforts like this, we have great intentions. But then we go up against those mainstream systems.”

Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.