A deeper look at Village Board’s changes within Millerton PD

MILLERTON — In the last issue of 2021, The Millerton News examined some procedural changes Millerton Mayor Jenn Najdek and her Village Board made starting this January on a one-month trial basis within the part-time, nine-member Millerton Police Department (MPD).

The primary change involved the department’s patrol schedule. Najdek said she wants the force to be more cost efficient and to improve safety when the village is exceptionally busy — namely when tourists and locals are shopping, dining and going to the movies on the weekends.

Changing shifts

Adding shifts to when the mayor thinks it’s more active in the village means subtracting shifts from other times police typically patrol.

MPD Officer-in-Charge Mike Veeder said the new changes will sacrifice police coverage when call volumes are actually higher and more severe. He added that the MPD’s call volume has increased fairly dramatically since this past summer, though he’s not sure why.

Veeder is awaiting a report from the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO), which he asked to compile for the Village Board to prove his point. He planned to bring it to the Village Board meeting on Monday, Dec. 13, but the DCSO had not finalized the report by then.

Najdek said if the DCSO’s call report shows “more serious” calls coming at particular times, the board will re-evaluate its decision. The mayor said previously that decision was based on safety and fiscal concerns.

Is money the issue?

But as Veeder said in the Dec. 23 Millerton News, he has a hard time believing the mayor and the board when they say the changes are based on money.

“Since I have been running the department, we have been under budget every single year,” he was quoted saying in December. “It’s not a budgetary thing at all.”

Village Clerk and Treasurer Kelly Kilmer explained previously that for Millerton’s current fiscal year of June 1 through May 31 of 2022, the MPD budget comes to $115,000.

The town of North East contracts with the village for police services and contributed a portion of the MPD’s budget for 2022, which came to $26,500. That reflects an annual increase of $500.

Eager to be full-timers?

Najdek has made other changes since being elected mayor in June 2021. This past summer she and the Village Board announced the MPD would no longer be allowed to recruit new officers to send to the police training academy, but would only be allowed to hire seasoned officers. Since then no new officers have been hired.

Veeder said the move was too limiting for a small, part-time force like Millerton’s, which offers low pay and few benefits. He added all who work at the MPD hold down jobs elsewhere to pay their bills, “most full time.”

He was frank when adding that if given the opportunity, most officers would choose to work in the MPD full time.   

“Absolutely. If the Millerton Village Board and North East Town Board decided to make us a full-time agency, our officers that we currently have — not all — but most of them — could be full time,” said Veeder. “With full time, too, there are age requirements, and not all of the older guys could be full time, but younger guys, including myself, could go full time.”

In September, Veeder said the department had an average of 30 to 50 calls a month, an uptick from previous summers. As 2022 begins, that high call volume remains.

He added community members ask him regularly why Millerton doesn’t have a full-time force.

“A lot of people reach out to me in support of the police department and say, ‘Thanks for what you do; we’re glad you’re here; we need a full-time agency.’ We hear a lot of good things,” he said this past summer. “But not everyone likes the police.”

At the time he was worried that included the mayor and some trustees, whom he feared were trying to dismantle the MPD.

The mayor said at year's end those fears were unwarranted.

“Not at all. I don’t have an issue with having the police department,” said Najdek. “I think having a local police department can be invaluable… in ways that having a larger department might not necessarily be. A local police department knows its residents, knows its business owners in the community, knows what life is like in the village and in the surrounding town.”

History of DWI patrol

Yet she added “a lot of things” have been brought to her attention about a “kind of hunting behavior” from officers following drivers, “looking to pull people over,” which she said “is not necessarily community policing.”

Najdek added it’s been a years’ long pattern of overly aggressive policing, and that she continues to hear from people who “have not necessarily been drunk driving. I had two conversations this week; one from one person who hasn’t had a drink in 30 years.”

She said the driver was grilled by a Millerton officer.

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard of that,” said the mayor. “I’m not saying those types of things don’t happen everywhere… But I believe our department has a reputation of being very aggressive with stops and pulling people over and following people 3 or 4 miles. To me that’s looking for something as opposed to [coming across something]… maybe for the good; you’re trying to be proactive about it.”

Yet Najdek said she thinks the department’s reputation for having a confrontational style of DWI patrolling could be preventing people from coming to Millerton to dine, shop and go to the movies.

“One-hundred percent,” she said. “I have people say to me, ‘Do you still have your police department? We stopped coming to Millerton years ago; it’s not a place to drive though.’ I want my community just as safe as any other community, but I don’t want it a place where people don’t feel comfortable going.”

Najdek added that some drivers told her when on roadways late at night “they don’t feel as nervous with seeing the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office [DCSO] deputies or New York State Police [NYSP] troopers. They feel more nervous with local police, and it should kind of be the opposite, shouldn’t it?”

Jan. 6 meeting

The Millerton/North East Police Committee was also present at the Village Board meeting on Dec. 13, to plan for a meeting in this month. That meeting is set for Thursday, Jan. 6, at 6 p.m. via Zoom.

For the Zoom link and other details, contact the village clerk at 518-789-4489, clerk@villageofmillerton.com or go to www.villageofmillerton.net.

Committee Chairman and Village Trustee Matt Hartzog stressed the committee’s role is to deal with police reforms, and has nothing to do with if the MPD continues on as an entity. That, he said, is a Village Board decision.

Committee member and North East Town Councilman Ralph Fedele, meanwhile, said the Dec. 13 Village Board meeting that addressed the MPD and its future was “not pleasant.”

Forum might help

Fedele added his goal is for the joint committee to “find out what the people want out of their police department, and if they feel we are getting value out of taxpayer money.”

He added there were a couple of residents present on Dec. 13 eager to form a citizen’s police committee to ensure the police reform enacted by the village, on orders from former Governor Andrew Cuomo, are being followed.

Fedele said a public forum might be in order.

“But the danger is when you ask for a public meeting, only those people who are interested will show up, so that could mean all of these activists,” he said.

“So you won’t find out what the average person in the town wants. I want to make sure we find out what the average person in town wants, not only what these select people want.”

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