Geneva City Councilor: People of color have had ‘terrible experiences’ with Geneva Police

A September 4th article in the Finger Lakes Times (“Geneva’s out of her comfort zone”), which addressed comments that Geneva resident and attorney Natalie Knott made to City Council and the Finger Lakes Times about her experiences as a Black Latinx woman in Geneva, caused quite a stir on social media and in the paper’s editorial pages.

The Finger Lakes Times published two Letters to the Editor on September 26th and October 4th in which Knott was told to “get a job,” and admonished and discredited for speaking up after living in the city for three years. Both letters were from older white male residents of Geneva.

Many Geneva residents took to social media to criticize Knott and also to criticize the Finger Lakes Times for daring to publish a “negative” article on the front page. Many of the attacks on Knott were disturbing, hostile and aggressive, with some angry commenters discussing where and when Knott might be spending time around the city.

However, I didn’t see a single person address similar comments in the same article from a longtime resident and elected official of Geneva.

In response, I have committed copyright infringement edited the original article to present the identical information, but from a different perspective. The quotes and information are taken entirely from the original article, and I’ve only added or altered a small handful of words and punctuation.

Geneva City Councilor: People of color have had ‘terrible experiences’ with Geneva PD

GENEVA — Geneva City Councilor Mark Gramling, City Council’s only African-American member and one of the few people of color involved in city government, elected or appointed, recently stated that the Geneva Police Department is not making sufficient progress in their relationship with people of color in the city.

Gramling, who received more votes in the 2015 election than any other Council or Mayoral candidate, grew up in Geneva and said he has had mostly positive experiences with police — so much that he had aspired to become an officer himself (he works for NYSEG). But he said not all have had the same experience.

“You have to take care of that police department,” is what some residents told him while he campaigned for Council in 2015.

“I know people who have had real terrible experiences (with city police),” he said.

Geneva City Councilor-At-Large Mark Gramling
Geneva City Councilor-At-Large Mark Gramling

Right now, said Gramling, the police department is not making sufficient progress. Gramling stated this viewpoint in recent conversations with Geneva Police Chief Jeff Trickler.

“The chief didn’t like that,” said Gramling. “I want to speak to what actually exists. It’s the opinion of the African-American and black and brown people of the city.”

And Gramling said he always fears for his children, some of whom are grown up and out the house. Maybe not in Geneva, but in other communities.

“We can be targeted and we can be executed,” he said.

Gramling on Attorney Knott’s Statements

Natalie Knott stood in front of City Council in early August and told officials that Geneva needed to do a whole lot more to make people of color feel welcome.

“I don’t feel comfortable here, quite often,” she told Council at its Aug. 3 meeting. “I feel surveilled.”

She added: “This is not a place that is comfortable to lots of folks who live here.”

Gramling said Knott’s remarks to Council did not come as a surprise.

“When I heard her say it, it wasn’t a shock at all,” he said. He said Knott is a “very strong voice and strong advocate” for people of color and of the poor.

“She’s a very vocal and very in tune to what is happening,” added Gramling. “She’s not afraid to speak up.”

A housing attorney, who moved to Geneva three years ago, Knott loves much of what the city offers — from its culture and restaurants to its affordable housing.

And many of her middle-class, single friends of color come to visit and love it as well.

They ask her, should they move to the city?

Knott said she can’t recommend that people of color make Geneva home. Not yet.

Knott, also a member of Tools for Social Change, said that “people like me are the future of cities like this,” but that city government must create “a more equitable Geneva.”

In an interview a week later at one of her favorite spots, Finger Lakes Gifts and Lounge on Linden Street, Knott expanded on her comments about how people of color feel about living in Geneva.

She said she moved here in September 2013 to take a job as a housing attorney for Legal Assistance of Western New York in Geneva. She said she was pulled over by various police agencies seven times in the ensuing months, one time on the Thruway when cars around her were going much faster.

Knott, who has Hispanic roots but is not African-American, recalled a bad experience with police in another community she lived in. It was in the city where she was attending college, Walla Walla, Wash., where she was “stopped for nothing.”

At the time, Knott said, she had a shaved head and could have been mistaken for a black man.

Knott, now 34, had three white friends in the car with her. She said she was told to lie down in the street while she was frisked. She was thrown into the back of a police car so hard she bumped her head on the window on the other side, according to Knott. They also searched her car, finding nothing but a bottle of booze in the trunk, she said.

Meanwhile, said Knott, the three white occupants in her car were merely asked to sit on the curb while an officer talked with them.

“My car looked suspicious,” said Knott, saying she had a “crappy Saturn.”

She was never charged, and the college administration asked the officers who stopped her to talk with them about the incident.

There were “no apologies,” Knott said.

She brought up the incident to illustrate what she said is the uneven approach to policing by some police officers.

“This (kind of incident) isn’t rare at all,” she said, saying a “majority (of people with color) have had some type of traumatic interaction with police officers.”

Knott emphasized that she has endured no such incidents with Geneva police but believes the city has a lot of work to do to improve relations with communities of color.

Geneva, said Knott, “has the power to be so much more. … That’s what I was trying to make clear to City Council.”

The Los Angeles native said the city is “not a welcoming environment” to many minorities, pointing not only to police matters but including such issues as the debate over the recent naming of a neighborhood association representing northern Geneva as Lehigh Gardens instead of Torrey Park, which reflected the area’s Italian-American heritage.

Knott said the signs, stating “Torrey Park Forever,” “evoke a time of racially restrictive covenants.”

She added: “Torrey Park is no longer predominately Italian-American.”

And finally, Knott points to the prosecution of Geneva teens charged with rioting in a case of five teens accused of being involved in a melee in early June.

“We didn’t have a riot here,” she said, noting the District Attorney’s Office ultimately makes the decision on what charges will be filed. “Kids were not rioting in the streets.”

Other city officials disappointed with remarks

While Gramling echoes and supports Knott’s statements, her comments were disappointing to City Manager Matt Horn and Police Chief Jeff Trickler, who both sit on the Geneva Community Compact Steering Committee, which Knott has become involved in.

The compact, created following the police shooting of William “Corey” Jackson in 2012, is charged with finding ways to improve relations between the city, its police department and the African-American community. It was brokered by the U.S. Department of Justice, and is up for another five-year renewal in 2017. Council members have endorsed the extension.

“It is disheartening for me to hear anybody say that they don’t feel safe or welcomed in Geneva,” said Horn. “For as long as I can remember, City Council has explicitly made inclusiveness, diversity and celebration of our diverse cultural makeup priorities for Geneva’s revitalization.”

And Trickler, who did not hear Knott speak at the City Council meeting, said he was “disappointed to hear [about] such a statement,” saying the department “is committed to ensuring the safety of all city residents and its visitors and to do so in a fair and equitable manner.”

Trickler noted his involvement with the Community Compact Steering Committee.

“I have worked alongside several community leaders, such as the NAACP and the African-American Men’s Association, to ensure that the department has a better relationship with the minority community.”

City Mayor Ron Alcock did not respond to a request for comment.

Gramling said Horn asked him to join the Community Compact Steering Committee, which he said has become a large focus of his work as an at-large council member.

So far, the committee’s accomplishments have been modest, Gramling admitted, pointing to the annual Citizen’s Police Academy, created to help residents get a greater feel for what police do on a daily basis.

Still, Gramling, Horn, Trickler and even Knott agree that Geneva’s community-police issues can be largely solved.

Trickler admitted there is “still work to do,” and Horn agrees, noting Council’s support of continuing the work of the Community Compact Steering Committee.

Knott said Geneva can be “a nationwide elder in police-community relations.”

She added: “There is no justice for poor people in this country. But because that’s true everywhere else, it doesn’t mean it has to be here.”

Leave a Reply