Friday, 01 March 2024 11:45

AG Releases Report On Saratoga Springs Response To City Protests

SARATOGA SPRINGS — On Feb. 20, the N.Y. State Office of the Attorney General released its 28- page report on Saratoga Springs Police Department’s response to protests in the city in 2021. 

The 408-word Executive Summary occupies page 1 of the 28-page report. It reads as follows: 

“For more than a year beginning May 31, 2020, the City of Saratoga Springs saw regular Black Lives Matter protests on its downtown streets. The protests criticized city officials and called to “defund” the Saratoga Springs Police Department. Although they could be raucous, the protests were also peaceful—there were no credible allegations that any BLM protester ever harmed another person or damaged property during a Saratoga Springs protest.

On June 26, 2021, at a press conference, Saratoga Springs Assistant Police Chief John Catone threatened the BLM protesters that he would “pull out every single connection my family has made over the last 130 years, and I will stop your narrative.” Catone said aloud what other Saratoga Springs officials expressed only privately: that the city should use its police force to silence the BLM protesters.

Weeks later, during a July 14 rally protesting Catone’s remarks, Mayor Meg Kelly and Commissioner of Public Safety Robin Dalton each ordered Police Chief Shane Crooks to arrest protesters. Dalton demanded that Crooks “Arrest all those (expletive deleted).” Kelly texted, “I hate these people,” and called for a Child Protective Service investigation of Lexis Figuereo, a Black Lives Matter leader. Crooks replied that he had a “list” of protesters to arrest and would get arrest warrants for the BLM leadership. 

Nearly two months after the July 14 protest, local law enforcement arrested twelve BLM protesters for minor offenses allegedly committed during the protest. Consistent with Kelly’s instructions, an SSPD officer initiated a Child Protective Service investigation against the mother of Figuereo’s children. That inquiry was unfounded, and all charges against the protesters were dismissed. 

Following complaints from the public, the Office of the Attorney General investigated under Executive Law § 75(3). The OAG issued subpoenas to Saratoga Springs, Dalton, Kelly, Crooks, and other individuals, reviewed approximately 276,809 documents, took 9 sworn oral examinations, and interviewed members of the public. 

The Attorney General concludes that, in 2021, Dalton, Kelly, and Crooks implemented an unconstitutional official policy of retaliating against BLM protesters based on their speech. The sweeping arrests violated the police department’s written policies to protect protesters’ First Amendment rights. But they were conceived of and approved by the highest decisionmakers in city government. Because those arrests were caused by official hostility to the protesters and their message, they violated the First Amendment.

To prevent these circumstances from ever recurring, the Attorney General recommends permanent policy changes to be monitored over time by the OAG.”

The report references a period of time two administrations ago, and none of the four Saratoga Springs officials named in the Executive Summary are currently in city government or with the police department. 

On Feb. 21, the office of current Mayor John Safford released a brief statement regarding the release of the Attorney General’s report, which read, in part: City officials are now reviewing the report, learning from its content, and proceeding with the development and implementation of policies, procedures, and practices to address the recommendations made by the Attorney General’s Office. 

Saratoga BLM released a statement on Feb. 23 which read, in part: The release of this report, while a crucial step towards accountability and justice, is merely the beginning of a long overdue reckoning with the systematic injustices and abuses of power that have plagued our community far too long…this report marks only the beginning of our journey towards justice, but it is up to us to endure that it is not the end.

“After discussions with the AG, they changed their report to accurately reflect that it was not the SSPD responsible for firing pepper balls or utilizing an armored vehicle designed for combat in Iraq. Facts matter,” current Public Safety Commissioner Tim Coll said in a statement on Feb. 21. “I look forward to continuing to review the document to determine if other inaccuracies exist.”

The AG’s report references that during protests in 2020 “the SSPD and other police agencies responded with horse-mounted police, dozens of officers in riot gear, and an armored vehicle designed for combat in Iraq,” and links to an Aug. 4 SSPD press release that states “The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department ‘MRAP’ vehicle,” was used, as well as that the use of OC Spray and Pepper Projectiles may be considered for use to bring a group under control and that “the Chief of Police authorized the use of the pepper projectiles once the situation started turning violent.”   

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