Promise of State Troopers in Albany raises concerns for activists, residents

Promise of State Troopers in Albany raises concerns for activists, residents

Photo from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Flickr feed

As of Thursday, May 18, New York State Troopers from Troop G have been deployed to Schenectady, as part of a larger anti-gang and anti-crime push from Governor Andrew Cuomo. They are set to be deployed to Albany as well — as soon as talks with Acting Albany Police Chief Robert Sears wrap up. According to State Police spokesperson Beau Duffy, the number of actual troops deployed each day will rotate on an as-needed basis, with a minimum of two per day in each city. The announcement of additional troops in the region was paired with the announcement that two state programs, Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) and SNUG, would be receiving increased aid, a total of $1.2 million. (Both programs are intended to eliminate gun violence through increased community involvement and funding.)

What does this mean for Albany, which, for a number of years now, has attempted to shift toward “community policing,” a practice marked by an intimacy of police officers with the community? Community policing is intended to build up trust between police departments and the often disproportionately black and Latino neighborhoods which receive the brunt of police attention. How will bringing in State Troopers, who don’t have the relationships with these neighborhoods that the Albany Police Department has, affect these efforts?

Brian Shea, Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s Chief of Staff, provided The Alt a statement suggesting that things would continue on as they have — that the presence of State Troopers would not affect current policy or practice on the ground.

“The APD will ensure that the additional resources we are receiving from the State will be applied in a manner that is consistent with the City’s commitment to community policing and 21st century policing strategies,” Shea said in an email. The Chief of Staff also de-emphasized the importance of the additional personnel, mentioning that the “major component of this partnership is an enhanced focus” on GIVE and Albany Cure Violence, a newer name for SNUG.

Mayor Sheehan appeared with Gov. Cuomo at the May 2 press conference, when this initiative was announced. It is unclear how far in advance of Gov. Cuomo’s visit to Albany the Sheehan administration knew of the initiative.

APD Public Information Officer Steve Smith also seemed relatively unconcerned with the additional manpower. “It wasn’t necessarily a surprise,” says Smith. “It’s part of the overall combatting group violence initiative. And it isn’t the first time that we’ve worked with State Police.” Smith was referring to Operation Impact, more informally known as the “Blue and Gray Program,” in which State Troopers partnered with APD forces to patrol Albany streets during the Pataki administration. “It was very successful to combat group violence, and got a lot of guns off the street.”

As to whether State Troopers on Albany streets will affect the nature of Albany policing: “It won’t have any effect on community policing,” said Smith. “We’re a model agency for community policing, locally and nationally. Anytime we can work together, we can accomplish more.”

Duffy concurs with Smith. “[The State Police] have a very close relationship with local police departments, and we work with them on various levels, especially with our community narcotics enforcement team, which assists with long-term investigations.”

But local community activists and leaders have more questions than answers about what the influx means.

“I think the community is very confused. This seems to be a part of Gov. Cuomo’s agenda, which we don’t understand. We don’t understand the purpose of this initiative,” says Dr. Alice Green, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Justice. Green is concerned with how quickly everything seemed to unfold. “Gov. Cuomo called a press conference at the last minute to inform the City of Albany that he was doing this.”

Terry O’Neil, a policing expert at the Constantine Institute and an advocate for community policing, is similarly perplexed. “I don’t know how the city of Albany conveyed to the governor the dire need for this intervention. For the governor to come in out of nowhere and suggest that we have an out-of-control gang problem and that we need extra policing, simply doesn’t make any sense.”

The governor’s office referred us to the State Police for comment.

In his press conference announcing the initiative, Gov. Cuomo seemed to point to the increase in gang activity across the state, made worse by the exploding opiate epidemic, as justification for the increase in funding and the deployment of State Troops. But O’Neil takes issue with that generalization as it applies to Albany. “I can’t see a whole lot of evidence that there’s a well-defined gang presence in the city,” he said.

O’Neil speculated that this initiative “appeared to be a political move” on the part of Gov. Cuomo to bolster his tough-on-crime reputation.

Despite official assurances that the initiative will not hurt existing community policing efforts, local leaders are skeptical.

“We’ve been working with the local Police Department to improve the relationship between community and police and we’ve had some headway,” says Green. It’s worked, in part because the “community and the police department view themselves as partners in public safety efforts. Here, something is being done from outside, and the community had no role to play in the decision-making process.”

Rev. Mark Johnson, a South End community leader running for Common Council in Ward 2, echoes this complaint, adding that “engagement with the community needs to happen if you want sustainably safe communities.” The key to ending violence, says Johnson, is to empower community leaders and residents to make decisions for themselves. “We want our community to rise up, we don’t just want politicians telling us what the community needs. We want more talk between the state, businesses, neighborhood associations, etc., collectively coming up with decisions.”

The governor’s initiative also raises larger questions about whether the problems of Albany’s poorest neighborhoods can be alleviated by more policing. One South End resident with whom The Alt spoke on the condition of anonymity seemed skeptical that more police would do anything to fix the community’s rampant poverty and lack of opportunity.

“Instead of always targeting people with arrest, maybe target them with opportunities instead,” the resident said, mentioning how hard it is for people who have criminal records to get legitimate employment afterwards. “[Prison] leaves them where? Standing on somebody’s street corner.”

Former Common Council member (and frequent contributor to The Alt) Dominick Calsolaro agrees with that sentiment, although he is more measured about the effect that two to three State Troopers will have on the ground, saying that it “won’t have much of an effect on the way Albany is policed.”

Calsolaro told The Alt that it would have been “better if the governor came out to attack poverty, and why residents can’t get jobs at decent wages — if he had gone into the core reason for why we have these issues.”

“More police is just a reaction,” Calsolaro added.

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