August 8, 2020
by Alvin Reiner
ELIZABETHTOWN — A letter with more than 700 signatures requesting the reopening of a case involving the alleged actions of an off-duty police officer was delivered to the office of Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague Thursday.
On June 6, Cohoes Police Officer Sean T. McKown is alleged to have brandished and fired a police issue firearm when three Black visitors to the area were walking on the Lincoln Pond Road (Essex County Route 7) searching for cell phone service.
In an Aug. 5 article, the Albany Times Union reported that McKown had given conflicting stories to investigating officers, and was determined to be intoxicated at the time.
The Black tourists who were staying at a local home declined to press charges after being interviewed by the police, the Times Union reported. A video taken from a neighbor’s home surveillance system at the time added credence to the tourists’ story of the event and discredited McKown’s initial claims of being threatened.
‘HE COULD SHOOT AT ME’
What has prompted the outcry is the fact that no charges were filed against McKown, State Police indicated the case had been closed and McKown was placed on sick leave according to Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler, who made a decision not to fire him at the time. There are also indications that McKown could subsequently retire in August.
Following the letter’s delivery, John Brown Lives! Executive Director Martha Swan, Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Nicole Hylton-Patterson, and attorney Matt Melewski held a press conference outside the Essex County Courthouse after they presented Sprague’s receptionist with the letter and signatures.
The press was not permitted to witness the transaction. The day before the event, Sprague had contacted the group to let them know that she would not be available at that time due to a prior commitment.
Among those at the press conference was Nell Painter, who is Black and has spent much time on property she has owned for the past 16 years not far from Lincoln Pond.
“If he (McKown) could shoot at other Black people, he could shoot at me,” Painter said.
She indicated that there have been recent incidents in which white people “have become riled and harassed people like me, claiming they were protecting their property. Tension is in our country nationally.”
PEOPLE WANT CHANGE
After delivering the letter, Swan said, in part, “We are urging Kristy Sprague to investigate the incident and also investigate the investigation.”
Swan spoke of the many recent protests and prayer gatherings throughout the North Country, each involving hundreds of concerned citizens supporting Black Lives Matter.
Hylton-Patterson was the subject of racist graffiti spray-painted on a bridge over a trail on which she regularly exercised in the Village of Saranac Lake in late June. She expressed her “frustration and anger” over the public not being informed of the specifics of the case.
“We need the district attorney to fully step up. We want to protect our Black people. All we have right now is what has been reported in the papers,” she said.
“People come here because of the beauty and diversity of the land. It is the tourists and local white people who want change. There is a silver lining in that white people don’t want to keep silent.”
Part of the problem with police officers, according to Hylton-Patterson, is the need for training in “social consciousness” which she felt ended after an officer graduated from the police academy, but should continue throughout the officer’s career.
“We need resources and leadership that is transparent,” Hylton-Patterson said.
“Silence has meant death to Blacks and Indigenous people. It is really powerful that we got all those signatures in just two days. Many people, mostly white, want change.”
Melewski stated he only knew about the events by what was reported in the press. He called for consequences and wondered what might have happened.
“In this case, a phone call mobilized two police forces. That’s a criminal act. This is not a child’s play such as pulling a fire alarm. Someone has to take responsibility, whether it be the district attorney or the police.”
In an e-mail Thursday, Sprague said she already had the letter and had formally requested the investigation file and report from State police on Aug. 4.
“I exchanged emails with Ms. Swan last night and explained I would not be available at 10 a.m. and she could mail or email me the letter.
“She then wanted to drop it off and I gave her some instructions on how to access my office since new COVID rules are in place at the County Building.”
Sprague said that, if the investigation was reopened, it would remain a State Police probe.
“This is all I can really comment about since it is currently a closed investigation without arrest and not public record.”