By Maria Rocha-Buschel
All members of the NYPD are required to swear an oath to the New York State Constitution when they begin their service, but Detective James Coll said that it wasn’t until after he swore his oath that he actually took the time to read it. Since he felt like he wasn’t the only one who was unfamiliar with the document, he started a non-partisan and non-profit organization called ChangeNYS that aims to educate New Yorkers about the contents of the state’s constitution.
Coll, who is one of the detectives that was honored with the Cop of the Year award in 2009 for rescuing passengers from the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River, has been a member of the NYPD since 1997 and since 2002 has been a member of the Emergency Squad Unit 1, which is directly adjacent to the 13th Precinct on East 21st Street.
Coll has been an adjunct professor of American history at Nassau Community College since 2001 but he said that he started thinking about the state’s constitution when he decided to go to graduate school shortly after joining the NYPD. He started ChangeNYS about two years ago as an educational program and to offer a forum for discussion to anyone who wanted to learn about the government.
“I’ve been working for the government my entire adult life and studying the process interests me,” Coll said. “I founded the organization to start conversations in different communities and to lead discussions about state government.”
Some of the discussions that Coll hopes to spark are on topics like term limits, opening up primary process to more people and reforming how electoral votes are allocated in New York.
He wrote in an editorial for Newsday last month that term limits without allowing a more inclusive political process is like “changing the body and keeping the disease,” so he hopes to make elections more open for all New Yorkers and not just current politicians.
Another initiative that he is currently working on is the renaming of a park in Long Island originally named for the disgraced State Senator Dean Skelos.
Coll said that the attempt to rename the park actually didn’t have to do with the Senator’s recent indictment. Coll started the initiative on the basis that parks shouldn’t be named for politicians, he said.
“I don’t like the idea that a park is named after a politician at the expense of the taxpayers,” he explained. “Parks should be named after someone that has not just served, but who served and sacrificed for the country.”
He is hoping to have the park renamed in honor of Ronald Winchester, a Marine lieutenant who was from Rockville Centre and who was killed by an IED in Iraq in 2004, or Detective Brian Moore, the Queens policeman who was shot and killed this past May. The petition on change.org currently has 112 supporters and Coll said that once the list of signatures reaches 200, he will approach the mayor to consider renaming the park.
Coll has given talks throughout the city and on Long Island through ChangeNYS in libraries, colleges and senior centers as well as with local civic groups and community organizations. He said that he hasn’t worked with many groups within the ESU 1 neighborhood but is always looking for different groups to speak with.
“It would be great to work with groups that are in the neighborhood around the 13th Precinct,” he said. “I’m always looking to expand further and I’ll speak in lots of different places with anyone who is looking to further the discussion.”