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News & Issues May 2022


A city’s push for police reforms

In Saratoga Springs, leaders pursue changes and aim to rebuild trust


Police cruisers line the street outside Saratoga Springs City Hall. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Police cruisers line the street outside Saratoga Springs City Hall. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


A new slate of city leaders in Saratoga Springs has been moving swiftly in recent weeks toward adopting one of the key goals of local police reform advocates: the creation of a local civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

At the same time, the city’s new public safety commissioner has released a lengthy report on the case of Darryl Mount, a biracial man who was mortally injured while fleeing city police in 2013. The draft report acknowledges misconduct by a former city police chief in handling Mount’s case -- and recommends the city settle a civil suit brought by Mount’s family.

These developments represent a sharp change in tone from the city government after nearly two years of bitter local debate and protests over issues of policing and racial justice — as well as accusations that city police targeted the protesters for disproportionately harsh treatment. The shift also reflects the victory of a pro-reform slate of candidates in November’s city elections.
The new plan for a civilian review board, which could come up for a City Council vote by early May, largely mirrors a recommendation made more than a year ago by a 13-member task force that spent months reviewing the city’s policing practices and policies. Municipal governments across New York were required to set up similar task forces after the national outcry over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Although the City Council that was in office last year adopted many of the local task force’s recommendations, it blocked action on the proposal for a civilian review board.

But reform advocates have continued to argue that a review board is crucial to restoring trust in the city’s police force by providing a process for prompt independent review of police actions in cases like Mount’s.

The effort to create a review board gained new momentum in January when James Montagnino took over as the city’s new public safety commissioner. Montagnino, a Democrat, had strongly supported the concept in last year’s campaign. He defeated Republican candidate Tracey LaBelle, who was supported by the city police union, by more than 10 percentage points in the November election.

Terry Diggory of the Saratoga Immigration Coalition, who served on the city’s Police Reform Task Force, said Montagnino’s new blueprint for a review board is similar to what the task force proposed last year.

“I’m glad the City Council is moving forward,” Diggory said. “It’s very important to have a civilian review board so people can have full confidence in the police department.”
City Police Chief Shane Crooks, who also served on the task force, did not respond to requests for comment last month.


Subpoena power
Eric Lawson, a local lawyer and professional arbitrator, said he wrote the original civilian review board proposal five years ago for an initiative of the Saratoga Immigration Coalition.

“It’s basically the kind of dispute resolution that you find in collective bargaining,” Lawson said. “It’s a completely neutral procedure that doesn’t favor the police or the complainant. It provides for mediation with a neutral third party. Only if that fails does it go to a semi-judicious proceeding.”

Lawson said he’s “delighted to endorse” Montagnino’s version of the proposal.
“It’s really a very, very positive development,” he said, adding that the new board should be effective at improving the relationship between city police and residents “if it’s adopted, implemented and funded with an adequate chair.”


James Montagnino, the new public safety commissioner in Saratoga Springs, has been guiding an effort to create a new civilian review board that could investigate allegations of police misconduct. Joan K. Lentini photo


James Montagnino, the new public safety commissioner in Saratoga Springs, has been guiding an effort to create a new civilian review board that could investigate allegations of police misconduct. Joan K. Lentini photo

As of late April, Montagnino’s proposal called for a five-member civilian review board, with one member nominated by each member of the City Council, including the mayor, and each of the members appointed by a majority vote of the council. The mayor’s nominee would lead the panel. The proposal specifies that the board’s members should reflect the diversity of the city’s population, with at least one member between the ages of 18 and 25.

The review board would have administrative subpoena power to obtain police records and investigate complaints. The public safety commissioner would review the commission’s conclusions and recommendations before issuing a final decision in each case. Complainants who are dissatisfied with these decisions could appeal them in court.

The Rev. Joe Cleveland, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs, has been following the city’s policing issues since 2018 and said he hopes the creation of a review board will “go a long way to restoring trust between the folks who feel they’re being aggressively policed and the people policing them.”

Winston Grady-Willis, another member of the former city Police Reform Task Force and the director of the Black Studies program at Skidmore College, said Montagnino’s proposal incorporates several key elements originally suggested by the task force.

“The most important is perhaps subpoena power,” Grady-Willis said. “That’s critical for the civilian review board to have integrity.”

The true test, he added, will be when the civilian review board receives a complaint. How it handles its inquiry will “have the potential to move the community forward,” he said.
He hopes for a broader reckoning.

“At some point,” Grady-Willis said, “I would really like to see individuals in power, including the police department and the city, engage in conversation with the larger community with genuine acknowledgment of past failures and double standards of how protesters are treated.”


Failures of leadership?
Much of the distrust of the local police department among some Saratogians traces back to the city’s handling of the Darryl Mount case. Mount was found unconscious in a downtown alley in August 2013 after fleeing city patrolmen on foot. Police said he was injured in a fall; Mount’s family has claimed he was a victim of police brutality. He never fully regained consciousness, and he died more than eight months later.

The police chief at the time, Gregory Veitch, told a reporter that the department was conducting an internal investigation of the incident. But five years later, Veitch admitted under oath that no investigation of his officers’ conduct was ever undertaken.

In his campaign for office last year, Montagnino, whose lengthy legal career includes experience as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, promised to produce his own report on the incident. He researched publicly available information from the police department and from a pending civil suit filed by Mount’s family. The result is his “Draft Report on the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Darryl Mount,” released Feb. 15.

“Obviously, the events of the last two summers brought the case to the forefront,” Montagnino said in an interview. “I’m hoping that having presented publicly more evidence, people’s questions have been answered.”

Montagnino stressed that his research has turned up no evidence that the officers who were pursuing Mount on the night he was injured did anything wrong. But his 38-page report also blasted what he called a failure of leadership by Veitch, who he said was obligated to conduct a prompt internal review of the incident.


Details of a fatal encounter
Mount, who was 21 at the time of his encounter with city police, lived in Ballston Spa. He was on parole after a prison term for a nonviolent burglary offense. He was sent back to prison for 90 days for parole violations and was released again in July 2013. On the night of Aug. 30, the start of Labor Day weekend, Mount and his girlfriend, Morgan McLean, went barhopping on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs — an act that represented a new parole violation.

About 2 a.m. on Aug. 31, according to Montagnino’s report, a woman on Caroline Street told patrol officers she had seen Mount slap Morgan in the face. The woman was never identified. Two officers of the four patrolling the busy area questioned Mount and McLean separately. Both Mount and McLean denied they’d been involved in any altercation, and police let them go.
Later, in a sworn deposition for the civil suit, McLean admitted that Mount had indeed struck her and had pulled her hair later when they were in a bar.

A short time after that, Mount and McLean were on opposite sides of Caroline Street when Mount saw her talking with another man. Mount charged over and slammed McLean’s head into a brick wall. The two officers witnessed the attack and ran towards the couple. Montagnino’s report notes that the officers had “probable cause” to believe that Mount’s action qualified as attempted assault.

Mount fled on foot with the officers in pursuit. Fleeing the officers represented another offense: resisting arrest. At Broadway, Mount turned south and then climbed a fence meant to keep people out of an alley where construction was going on. On one side of the alley, a scaffold nearly 20 feet high connected the street level with the alley’s floor. A fire escape went down a building on the other side. By the time the first officer arrived at the top of the alley, Mount had disappeared, according to Montagnino’s report.

About the same time, three workers in a restaurant kitchen that opened onto the alley heard a crash. One worker testified later that it sounded like a head hitting a solid object. They ran into the unlighted alley and found Mount face down on the ground. One officer, still on the scaffold, asked if the workers saw anything. The other three officers arrived shortly. One handcuffed Mount, but removed the cuffs when he realized Mount was unconscious, and called for medical assistance.

Mount was taken to Albany Medical Center Hospital with facial fractures and brain bleeding. Staff there told Mount’s mother, Patty Jackson, and McLean that his injuries were consistent with assault. Jackson and McLean immediately filed complaints of police brutality against the Saratoga Springs police.

The Times Union of Albany later reported that in October 2013, Jackson was advised by another health care worker at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady to hire a forensic pathologist to determine the cause of Mount’s injuries.

Mount never recovered enough to give his side of what had happened. He was cared for, mostly at home, by his family and aides until he died of pneumonia the following May. He was 22.


An investigation that wasn’t
Veitch, the police chief, received Jackson’s and McLean’s complaints alleging police brutality. Montagnino says that under department policy, the complaints should have triggered an internal review.

Veitch told a reporter for The Saratogian newspaper in October 2013 that the department was indeed investigating. But in an internal email obtained by the Times Union, Veitch told his staff two days after the incident that he would accept witnesses’ statements that Mount had been beaten only to assure the public that the department took such complaints seriously and to head off civil lawsuits. Veitch said he knew such statements would be false.

Montagnino says it was wrong for the police chief to effectively prejudge the outcome of an internal review he was obligated to pursue.

In fact, the only investigation the department ever undertook was to determine what charges could be filed against Mount. The department’s official position was that Mount fell from the scaffolding while trying to elude police. Because Mount remained unconscious, he was never charged.

Montagnino said his review of witness statements and video footage showed no officers were near Mount at the time he was injured. The public safety commissioner also learned that Mount’s upper spine had been fused in 2010 after he broke his neck in a diving accident. As a result of this prior injury, Mount’s inability to bend when he started to fall might have led to a fatal head injury as he fled from police, Montagnino says.

Montagnino’s report concludes that Mount had no injuries consistent with falling from a great height, such as from the top of the scaffold, but that scrapes on his hands and knees indicated he had fallen a lesser distance, either from lower on the scaffold or fire escape or even by tripping on the alley’s rough floor. Colliding with a wall was another possibility. Mount’s blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit for intoxication.

“At least at present, there is no evidence in the public domain that suggests anything other than Mr. Mount’s accidental sustaining of his injuries,” Montagnino wrote.


Calls for an independent inquiry
In 2014, Jackson filed a civil suit for wrongful death in Saratoga County Supreme Court against Veitch, then-city Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, the four officers who responded that night, and two other department staff. The suit sought unspecified damages for violation of Mount’s civil rights, deprivation of due process, subjection to excessive deadly and unreasonable force, racial profiling, and failure by some officers to intervene when, the suit claims, others attacked Mount.

Jackson’s forensic expert, Dr. Cyril Wecht, testified that since Mount had no injuries consistent with falling from a height, he must have been assaulted. The city’s expert witness, medical examiner Dr. Michael Sikirica, disputed that conclusion.

Montagnino says Wecht’s testimony is the only evidence that supports the claim that Mount was assaulted.

Although his report finds no culpability by officers at the scene, Montagnino had harsh words for Veitch, who retired in 2019.

“That he was never formally disciplined for his misconduct is inexcusable,” Montagnino wrote. He also criticized Mathiesen, the former public safety commissioner, saying that deferring to the chief over his handling of the case was “an abdication” of Mathiesen’s responsibility.
Montagnino labeled his report a draft, recognizing that some people may still have questions and some witnesses may not yet have come forward.

“A grand jury investigation by the state attorney general would be the best vehicle for finally establishing all the facts of this case,” he wrote.

“People say there are people with evidence who are reluctant to come forward,” Montagnino said.

Grand jury proceeding are secret and witnesses are immune from prosecution, although Montagnino noted that by now, the statute of limitations has run out on any crime short of murder, “and there’s absolutely zero evidence of that.”

In January, the new City Council asked Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen to call a grand jury to investigate the case. Heggen refused, saying that in her view, there was “not a modicum of evidence against the police” that would justify a grand jury inquiry.

The council then invoked a 2015 executive order by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowing the state attorney general to investigate deaths of unarmed people caused by law enforcement officials. The order is not retroactive to cases like Mount’s that date from before 2015, so Gov. Kathy Hochul would have to make a special request for state Attorney General Letitia James to launch an inquiry.

The City Council authorized Mayor Ron Kim to ask Hochul to pursue the issue, and Montagnino said he believes Kim is “in conversation” with Hochul’s staff.

The civil case brought by Mount’s family is ongoing. In November 2019, the city’s lawyers moved for summary judgment, meaning that in their view, the facts were not in dispute and the judge could rule for the city without the need for trial. A court date was expected for March 2020, but the outbreak of Covid-19 shut down the courts. Jackson’s lawyer asked for and was granted time to search for more evidence. Litigation is likely to continue for at least another year, Montagnino said.

Brian Breedlove, a Queensbury lawyer representing Mount’s family, did not respond to requests for comment.

In his report, Montagnino recommended that the city offer to settle with Mount’s family. Although there’s no evidence of misconduct by officers at the scene, he wrote, there is “more than sufficient proof that the misconduct of former Chief Veitch has caused Mr. Mount’s family considerable pain and suffering.”

He also contended that a settlement is appropriate because the city “should recognize it was the plaintiff’s attorney who did the investigation the city should have done.”

Montagnino predicted a settlement is unlikely until the judge has ruled on whether to go to summary judgment.

MLK Saratoga, a local racial justice group, has an undated “Justice for Darryl Mount” petition on its website, calling for a “full, independent investigation into the actions of the police, the coroner and other court and law enforcement, and city officials before and since the fatal injuries suffered by Darryl Mount on August 31, 2013.”

The petition asks for review of the police department’s policies and procedures and demands “mandatory training for the Saratoga Springs Police Department and all city employees on implicit bias and bias reduction, intercultural proficiency and nonviolent conflict reduction.”
As of late March, the petition had collected more than 20,000 signatures.