Mayoral debate exposes candidates’ records, opposing views on policing

Mayoral debate leading up to Election Day exposes candidates' records

Candidates sparred over police and public safety reform under the backdrop of a viral video where an individual was attacked near the Syracuse University.
Published: October 21, 2021
Syracuse Mayoral Debate 2021 at Newhouse School
The three candidates to be Syracuse's next mayor -- Ben Walsh, Janet Burman and Khalid Bey -- participated Wednesday in a debate at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.

With early voting starting this Saturday, the candidates running to become, or remain, Syracuse’s mayor are making sure voters know their stances and where they disagree with their opponents.

The mayoral debate, moderated by Syracuse.com’s Chris Baker took place at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Each mayoral candidate touched mightily on the issues of public safety and police reform. The debate follows an incident near Syracuse University’s campus where witnesses alleged white students attacked a man and the police who arrived on scene did nothing.

Baker leveraged Syracuse.com’s own reporting in pushing the candidates on police tactics. In response to a report that an innocent man spent ten months in prison because police investigators lied to him, incumbent mayor Ben Walsh found himself between his two opponents. Democrat Khalid Bey said that the conduct in that report would be referred for discipline in his administration, while Republican Janet Burman said that the tactics, while unpleasant, were within the law.

“While I understand that what those officers did was not technically illegal or not allowed, I’d like to think that we can do better as a police department,” Walsh said. “We need to make sure that our community is safe. We also need to hold our department officers to a very high standard.” The incumbent said that police chief Kenton Buckner had not presented anything to him that would warrant disciplinary action.

>Many of the jabs between the candidates came from the police union contract. An arbitrator finalized a deal between the city and the Syracuse Police Benefits Association. The $8.5 million agreement adds a residency requirement for future academy recruits from Syracuse, but includes a retroactive cost-of-living adjustment and gives large bonuses to veterans, high-ranking, and bilingual officers.

While Bey questioned the long-term sustainability of the contract, Walsh challenged Bey for rejecting a $19 million contract in 2019, along with the majority of the Common Council at the time, a move that forced the city and the union to enter arbitration.

“The concern relevant to the police contract was at first a presentation: relative cost was that it would be a $12.5 million dollar bill to the city to the taxpayer,” Bey responded. “You learned through further research and understanding that bill is actually $19.5 million. That particular misdirection is the reason why the majority of the council voted no.”

Baker also pushed Walsh on whether he felt the arbitration results demonstrated that his administration was too generous in his negotiations with the police department.

The contract represents a major part of Walsh’s record on policing, marked both by citywide cuts during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and his police reform executive orders. While the adopted 2022 budget restores much of the money lost by the city’s most expensive department, Burman said that wasn’t enough.

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Democratic mayoral candidate Khalid Bey takes questions from media following the Syracuse.com — Syracuse University mayoral debate Wednesday evening at the Newhouse School.

“If you view public safety as the paramount first priority of government, then you don’t make a proportional cut to public safety,” she argued.

The candidates answered questions from journalists studying at Syracuse University after the debate. Over the weekend, a video from The Tab showed a group of white students who assaulted someone they said robbed one of them.The man, unidentified in the video, did not cooperate with police, who faced backlash from witnesses after concluding there was nothing they could do.

“The details around the situation are still very much unknown,” Walsh said. “I’ve been in touch with Chief Buckner. I’ve asked him to take a very serious look into the situation both to determine what happened with the incident but also to evaluate whether or not he feels the officers responded accordingly.”

The Tab Syracuse reported that officers on the scene did not watch the video taken at the scene, speak to the victim, or provide medical attention. The man was reportedly bloody and sporting a swollen eye.

A Daily Orange column written by Julia Kahen highlighted the tension felt between visibly apathetic officers and shaken students. Walsh highlighted how many of his police-community measures include students as part of the Syracuse community.

“The former chief, Frank Fowler, made sure their officers filed a report if they did not file a report, then they ended up on his radar and they had to pay him a visit,” Bey said. “The same thing has to happen.”

Syracuse University said in a statement Sunday that their Department of Public Safety is reviewing security footage from the area. At the time they could not identify the assailants as students, but said if it turned out to be the case students were involved they could face suspension and referral to the Syracuse police.

“Is there a social service resource that could act as a liaison between the victim to reassure them, you know, that there will be no consequences for their reporting on who attacked them,” Burman said of the victim.

On Thursday, the Common Council reviews an agreement signed between Syracuse University and the city that would see parts of the campus included in the police training schedule. Over five years, Syracuse University’s payments to the city would double from $1 million to $2 million.

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is a magazine, news and digital journalism graduate student and contributor for The NewsHouse.