For a long time, residents of Troy, especially people of color, and all residents of neighborhoods deemed “problem areas,” have felt isolated alone with their negative experiences with city law enforcement, says Luz Marquez Benbow, a Troy resident and member of Justice for Dahmeek.
But when an unarmed young person, Dahmeek McDonald, was shot in the side of the head while sitting in his car last summer during a parole arrest, it was a catalyzing event. (McDonald survived.) The shooting took place, Benbow noted, in broad daylight, in full view of the community, and that helped people come together over it. It sparked “community outrage among people who had experienced similar behaviors,” says Benbow. “Not necessarily being shot at, but being harassed and brutalized by local enforcement, with no one to call them out.”
The event struck a personal cord with McDonald’s uncle, James (Messiah) Cooper, says Benbow, and he and other Troy residents began to organize, calling themselves Justice for Dahmeek. “Many of us who have for years been organizing in Albany around all sorts of issues, said ‘We gotta go back home,” says Benbow. “Many of us went to the march James Cooper held in the summer, started to make connections. Some [Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration] folks, some young people who have to interact with law enforcement every day. We started to get to know each other.”
The group is working on the case against the officer who shot McDonald and also broader changes to police-community interaction in Troy.
It got a major boost recently when the attorney general’s office released a detailed investigation into a different shooting by a Troy police officer, that of Edson Thevenin. Although the AG’s office said it didn’t have enough evidence to determine whether the shooting was justified, the report did not mince words in condemning the way the Troy PD handled the investigation. It found that the department pre-judged the results and rushed the case to a grand jury before the investigation was done, badly mishandled (or dismissed) witnesses and evidence, and throughout insisted upon supporting the account of the officer despite it being clearly contradicted by evidence in their possession since the evening of the shooting.
Mark Mishler, McDonald’s lawyer, calls the AG’s report “astounding, remarkable, and chilling.”
“The attorney general’s report validates what we already knew,” says Benbow. “It really shined a light on something that cannot continue any longer. For years local officials have hidden [what they are doing]. They can’t do that any longer.”
Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel E. Abelove was charged on Dec 1, 2017, with felony perjury and two misdemeanor counts of official misconduct over his role in the handling of the case.
At a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 18, members of Justice for Dahmeek said the report supports their call for the attorney general’s office to take over the investigation of the officer who shot McDonald.
Currently, that investigation is in the hands of the Schenectady County DA, because Abelove finally recused himself under pressure. Benbow and others at the press conference say that under the circumstances, the attorney general’s office would make a lot more sense. A busy DA of another county has his own full plate, after all. But even more importantly, the concerned residents say that AG report means it has recently made itself intimately familiar with the way the Troy PD handles cases like this, which makes it the logical choice, and one they feel confident would actually do the job well. That change would require an executive order from Governor Cuomo. (The group is gathering petition signatures encouraging the governor to do so.)
What happened in the Thevenin case was business as usual, said Cooper at the press conference, so he doesn’t expect justice for his nephew unless the AG steps in.
The group is also seeking Dahmeek’s release and a Civilian Police Review Board. “Given the tradition of nepotism within Troy politics, it’s important to specify that a review board has to include “people from the areas called ‘problematic,’” says Benbow. “We need to go right to the areas that are most affected. You can’t just have [a board] to have one.”
One might think that the leadership of Troy would be somewhat abashed about the contents of the AG’s report. One would be wrong. Mayor Patrick Madden (a Democrat, it should be noted), first claimed the report contained errors, but wouldn’t say what they were, and then responded to the community’s press conference with a statement about valuing free speech that didn’t acknowledge the content at all. Since “I value their right to free speech” is generally what people say when trying to be polite about something they find completely abhorrent, I guess we know how the mayor feels about a roomful of his constituents talking about their experiences with the Troy PD and calling for clear, practical solutions to make Troy a more just and safe place for all of its residents.
Benbow encourages Troy residents to come out when events like the dialogues run by the Troy African-American Pastoral Alliance are held, in order to learn more about their neighbors’ experiences and share their own. “If we want to live in a civil society we have to treat all people civilly,” she says. “Right now, Troy is not doing that.”