Having worked for his hometown police department for almost three decades, Hyde Park Police Chief Robert Benson has seen a lot during his years on the force.
This past year, officers across the country have been subject to intense scrutiny in the wake of protests over police violence and racial unrest. Chief Benson has used this dark time as an opportunity to uplift his officers.
He has sent out regular emails of encouragement throughout this past year to his staff.
“Police officers normally go out with the intentions of helping people,” he said. “I just try to remind my staff to keep doing what they’re doing.”
Officer wellness is something Chief Benson tries to emphasize amongst his staff.
“When I started, you would deal with the death of a child, and you were told to suck it up,” he said. “I always tell my officers to remember those who died, but focus on the people we interact with every day who survive.”
He also encourages officers in distress to try to find peer-to-peer support through the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA). The 24/7 network provides volunteer-based peer support for officers and veterans in need of guidance.
Chief Benson supports most police reform efforts that are taking place in New York state and elsewhere amidst the death of George Floyd. He discussed how his department has partnered with Mental Health America to provide mental health assistance on police calls.
“We bring the knowledge and background from being police officers, and the social workers we work with bring the training and skills that are needed to de-escalate,” he said.
Police forces can be at a disadvantage when it comes to de-escalation training due to a lack of funds, according to Chief Benson.
“Training costs money,” he said. “I have to pay someone to come in three times a year.”
Mental Health America workers have been instructors in the past for the trainings the Hyde Park department has hosted on de-escalation.
While Chief Benson condemned the actions of the former officer who was found guilty for George Floyd’s death along with the other officers on duty for their inaction at that time, he was hesitant to embrace the idea of repealing qualified immunity in New York state.
This legal mandate is said by progressive politicians and activists to have made it near impossible to legally hold police officers accountable for abuse allegations.
“I can’t speak to what’s going on in Albany, but [ending qualified immunity] could create a problem where it makes officers second guess how they act out of fear of being criminally charged,” he said. “Officers may be more timid to act, which is difficult in a profession where we often have to act in a millisecond.”
The New York City council, meanwhile, voted in March to end qualified immunity throughout the New York City Police Department. This decision coincided with the start of the George Floyd trial.
Officer Benson agrees with the premise that officers who are alleged to have committed a crime or infraction should be held accountable. He also believes that other officers who are witness to these incidents should report them immediately.
“If you don’t believe in ratting out your friends, you’re in the wrong,” he said. “If someone is doing something bad, they must be held to account.”
National Police Week is May 9 to May 15.