New police chief eyes smooth transition in Oneida
BY CASEY PRITCHARD Staff writer
Rome Sentinel Co.
Oneida Police Chief Steve Lowell, who took command of the department in late February, has hit the ground running. “It’s been busy, and it’s a good combination of understanding the role in its entirety,” he said. “Police Chief John Little and I had worked together during my time as assistant chief, and I feel prepared for this role.” The transition has been smooth, and Lowell attributes that to the work of the officers at the Oneida Police Department. The only hiccup Lowell could even think of was the stand-off on Phelps Street prior to the swearing-in ceremony — and even that was handled professionally by the OPD, Madison County Sheriff’s Office, and the Neighborhood Center’s Mobile Crisis Assessment Team. “I think it highlights that when it hits the fan, we come together as a county and a police department with the mechanisms in place to handle large-scale incidents,” he said. “And when you have those right people in place, it all works like a well-oiled machine.” Lowell has a plan already in place to help guide his first year at the helm, which includes adapting locally to a variety of national issues. “We were facing national scrutiny as law enforcement as a whole that highlighted necessary changes in law enforcement. Nobody is debating that we needed to make adjustments nationally, but the state of New York generally does things well,” he said. “We have good oversight from the state, and while it can be arduous, it keeps us to a high standard, from our police training to in-service training.” One necessary change, Lowell said, was to acquire and utilize body-worn cameras. Thanks to securing some grant funding, the body-worn cameras are expected to be in service around June. With the cameras, Lowell hopes to add another layer of trust and transparency. Another needed step, Lowell said, is for the Oneida City Police Department to become accredited by the state. “Becoming accredited offers consistent and confident police service,” he said. “Becoming accredited and earning state recognition by doing what you say you’re doing based on policy brings legitimacy and another level of trust.” Work is currently being carried out to digitize the OPD’s policies and supply them online for all residents, one of many standards required for accreditation. State auditors will look at that and put all of the OPD’s policies and procedures under a microscope, Lowell said. “From fleet to training, everything is put under a microscope, and I welcome that level of scrutiny,” Lowell said. “We don’t hide anything at the Oneida Police Department. We’re absolutely transparent.” Lowell said he found an old accreditation application written by then-Police Chief John McClellan in 1993. And on it, some of the issues he wishes to tackle were still issues back then. “In the 1993 application, he had to do a questionnaire and list the five most serious problems facing the agency in order of importance,” he said. On that list were: • Severe funding restrictions; • Reduced manpower; • Increased workload due to development; • Lack of training; and • Providing services to the Oneida Indian Nation. While the last two issues on that list have been resolved, Lowell said the department is still working on the first three topics. “We’ve had these problems for the last 30 years,” he said. “I know Chief Meeker, Chief Little, Chief McClellan, and Chief Paul Thompson made pushes for more staffing. But we have funding restrictions.” “I think the long-term goal is to address these three problems,” he said. “With funding, I think we need to figure out a strategic plan with the city to make these goals a reality.” When it comes to manpower, the OPD has gone from 25 officers to an authorized strength of 28 officers. In terms of workload, Lowell said mandates from the state the department needs to adhere to, such as the new discovery laws, create a larger workload for officers that could be better spent elsewhere. Regardless of what the future holds, Lowell is thankful for the efforts of the department and others in the city. “From the fire department to codes and the mayor’s office, everyone works together with the best mission intended — to better Oneida,” he said. “I’m thankful to work in a city that has that view. I’m proud to serve in this capacity.”