There’s more than one kind of police misconduct

The Syracuse Police Department’s misconduct takes many forms. This week we learned that the SPD wasted a bunch of public money by mismanaging staff scheduling early in the coronavirus pandemic, and we learned that the DA’s office finally dropped charges against the innocent man that SPD had coerced into confessing to a crime that he didn’t commit.

Fiscal irresponsibility matters. City Hall can’t afford to pay for all of the public services that Syracuse needs, so when SPD wastes money like that, they’re necessarily taking a necessary public service from someone who needs it. And, since 95% of officers live in the suburbs, every dollar spent on SPD’s payroll is a direct transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.

It also matters that SPD is locking up innocent people while murderers go free. Someone killed Charles Jones. It’s SPD’s job to find out who. Instead, they picked up the first black man that they found, Robert Adams, and got him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. He spent 8 months in jail. This is the exact opposite of justice.

These are two different problems—fixing one won’t necessarily fix the other. City Hall is very concerned with the first problem because it’s connected to the municipal budget. So they’ve taken concrete steps to rein in police overtime, to get cops to live in the City.

The trap here is thinking that fixing SPD’s money problems or getting officers to live in the City will make law enforcement more just—it won’t. It’s going to take a different set of actions to enforce laws fairly in Syracuse—demilitarizing the police, reducing their interactions with the public, treating mental health and addiction as the medical problems that they are. And we haven’t seen City Hall take any concrete steps to make any of that happen.

So as City Hall pursues police reform, keep in mind all of the different ways that SPD needs reforming. Yes, the police department needs to be a better steward of public money. And yes, its payroll should help build wealth in City neighborhoods. But it’s also true that the SPD needs to change its entire approach to policing if law enforcement is really going to make Syracuse a safer better place, and no amount of budget trimming or personnel policies can make that happen all on their own.