Longtime Irvington resident Kathy Kaufman has been passionate about police reform since before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis became the flashpoint for civil unrest nationwide this past summer. In the wake of that incident, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all municipalities in New York State to convene committees to examine their police departments’ methods and protocols, particularly those dealing with arrests and other encounters with the public.
Kaufman will be involved with the creation of a report for the Village of Irvington, bringing to the table her data analysis skills as a sociologist, as well as her volunteer work as a member of the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform (WCPR), which she became involved with about five years ago.
“Their mission is creating safer communities through accountability and transparency in the criminal justice system,” Kaufman said. Private citizens and about 20 organizations participate, including the NAACP, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the WESPAC Foundation, the Martin Luther King Institute for Nonviolence, and the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester County.
On behalf of the coalition, Kaufman created the Westchester County Policing Budget Dashboard, which was unveiled in October on the WCPR website (policereformny.wordpress.com). The database outlines how much each municipality spends on policing.
A resident of Irvington for 25 years, Kaufman graduated from the University of Wisconsin and then earned her Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University. She taught and worked as a research scientist before becoming an independent researcher and data analyst in 2017.
Her work with WCPR came about after her then 16-year-old daughter heard that a teacher at her school, who was a person of color, had a negative encounter with a police officer. Kaufman called the teacher, who confirmed the rumor, but did not want to report the incident.
She began looking into the issue, and found it difficult to obtain information about police interactions with the public, such as police stops, which Kaufman described as “the kind of data you would need to discover if there was a pattern of racism.”
She looked for organizations working to make communities safer for their own residents and for those who drive through them.
“I was pretty shaken up,” she said. “So I guess that was the beginning of it. And as a sociologist, I’m only comfortable if I have empirical data — like, ‘Is this a unique incident? How common is it?’ So that’s what took me into [the WCPR], and how I ended up doing that kind of work on the county level.”
Kaufman said Cuomo’s order created an impetus for communities statewide to seek public input on policing policy.
“The first thing that happens when those reviews begin is people start asking questions about incidents of racism,” she said, “like ‘What is the policy around use of force?’” The WCPR provides resources to communities that want information on best practices and norms around policing.
A few years ago, she researched racial disparities in the number of low-level marijuana possession charges in the county. “If you look at the statistical studies of marijuana use done by large government agencies, they consistently show people of all races use marijuana at the same rates,” she explained. In Westchester, she found that Blacks and Latinos were being charged more often than whites for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“People say, ‘Oh, that’s not happening in our town,’” Kaufman said. “So it was important for me to analyze city by city, village by village. I found that pretty much every place has racial disparity in [arrests for] low-level marijuana possession.”
That inequality has societal ramifications, she said, especially for those convicted of marijuana possession. “It kind of sets people up for a very different relationship with the criminal justice system down the road,” she noted.
Kaufman said communication with local police will be key when the Irvington committee on policing, which is still forming, begins its work. “We haven’t met yet,” she said. “I guess my biggest focus is really on transparency, because without information, we can’t even begin to have a conversation about whether we like, or don’t like, how things are.”