Tensions between activists and police officers have been boiling over across the country. But in Mount Vernon, a small city just north of the Bronx, local officials are striking a different tone. City leaders put up a Black Lives Matter banner in front of City Hall just across the street from the police department, and police officers have rallied with activists in multiple protests over the killing of George Floyd.

“We can’t breath. We’re having a rally for unity, unity between police and the community,” said Mount Vernon police commissioner Glenn Scott at one demonstration last month. “So something like the killing of George Floyd does not happen in our community.”

Such gestures would be hard to imagine in New York City, but in Mount Vernon, a majority black community, city leaders say they are trying to meet the moment.

This week, in response to community demands for change and following a police department whistleblower scandal, the department appointed Jennifer Lackard, a prison reentry specialist and unabashed reform activist, to the position of deputy commissioner for special initiatives. The department is also bringing in Ernest Morales, an NYPD veteran, who as first deputy commissioner will be the highest ranking Latino in the Mount Vernon Police department's history. The new hires are part of Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard’s campaign to win back community trust in the police department, which has been plagued for years by allegations of corruption and brutality.

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“I am confident that the City of Mount Vernon’s innovative and progressive approach to police reform will hopefully bring forth positive change,” said Patterson-Howard, the city’s first elected, Black, female mayor. “Our leadership is solid, our partnerships are growing, our mandate is clear & we are moving forward together to reclaim our city as a jewel in Westchester.”

In an interview with Gothamist/WNYC, Lackard acknowledged the leap of faith it took for the department to give her the position. Before her appointment, she led reentry service programs for people coming out of prison and served on the Culture Change Subcommittee for the New York City Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. She has never worked for a police department.

"Being in New York City, there's no way I would be able to get to an appointment like that,” she said, noting that Mount Vernon’s smaller size and culture allows for bold experimentation.

The prison reentry specialist said she plans on bringing officers to prisons to connect with people coming back out. She also wants to facilitate conversations between officers and the people they locked up.

"Many of the people who I've worked with who are formerly incarcerated say, ‘Yeah I was wrong to do that, I shouldn't have done that.' Right?,” she said. “But they're very accurate in terms of the way they were treated. That's the moment we can grab and we can say ‘get these people in the room to have the conversation.’"

Shawyn Patterson-Howard, Mount Vernon’s first elected Black, female mayor, stands at a podium. Patterson-Howard took office in January.

Shawyn Patterson-Howard, Mount Vernon’s first elected Black, female mayor, took office in January.

Shawyn Patterson-Howard, Mount Vernon’s first elected Black, female mayor, took office in January.

Ernest Morales, the NYPD veteran, also has a track record of community building. During his time as a commanding officer in the 42nd precinct in the Bronx, Morales volunteered as a youth boxing instructor.

Rank-and-file officers say they have also been trying to improve community relations. Dave Clark, a detective who lost his brother to gun violence decades ago, has been leading street walks with new recruits, who then have to create presentations on community concerns for the department. Clark said these efforts at building cultural competency are now even extending to department veterans in plainclothes street units that are charged with aggressively going after drugs and guns.

“Last week, after the different units took the training, they set up a table at Third Avenue and Third Street in the heart of the hood, and had music and gave out surveys. This is not normal for the plainclothes unit,” he said. “Tons of people were coming up to them filling out surveys on how they’re doing. I think it’s little things like that that the plainclothes have to start doing.”

Mount Vernon’s new reform vision, if carried through, could help heal longstanding rifts between the police department and the community. Over the last year, Gothamist/WNYC has uncovered numerous allegations of grave police misconduct by narcotics officers. Many of these accusations came to light thanks to a Mount Vernon police whistleblower, Murashea Bovell, who secretly recorded phone calls with his colleagues for years and provided them to us.

Bovell is still active on the force and says he is optimistic about the new approach.

"It seems like, maybe, this is a breath of fresh air for the city, for the department,” he said, noting that he has long called for police to foster cooperation rather than fear in criminal investigations. “Communication is always a positive step. Initiating communication and dialogue, it eliminates fear.”

Lackard acknowledges some officers won't like the rhetoric. "I'm not saying this is gonna be a cakewalk,” she said. “It's going to get uncomfortable. But quite frankly, it's that time."