Former Albany police chief Brendan Cox is not the only member of the law enforcement community who supports bail reform.
“I think it depends on the conversation,” Cox told The Alt last week, not long before state lawmakers adopted this year’s budget minus a measure that would have eliminated monetary bail for misdemeanors and some non-violent felonies. In public, “most” cops likely oppose a more moderate approach to bail, he said. But “if you sit down and have a full conversation, then you get more agreement.”
Cox, still in his forties, retired from the department early last year. Along with his immediate predecessor, Steven Krokoff, he has been credited with moving the department toward a more progressive model of policing, which garnered recognition from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016.
The same sort of public-private opinion split may also hold for sheriffs, Cox suggested. A few have told him they’d like to reduce their county jails’ population. “Let’s face it,” said Cox, “most of the sheriffs, it’s not their fault that people are coming into their jails.” Judges set bail or remand criminal defendants at their first court appearance—where, in many counties across New York, there may not even be an attorney present from the public defender’s office to advocate for their would-be client’s continued freedom.
Outside of New York City, 60 percent of jail inmates are being held pretrial, according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice. People accused or convicted of misdemeanors make up more than half of the non-NYC jail population.
Cox said it’s important to pressure legislators to act in the face of these rather dismal statistics—but also to give them support. For lawmakers and other electeds, being part of a broad coalition makes it easier to weather the inevitable charge that they just want to let the purported bad guys get off scot-free.
Just ask Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove. Though not exactly a friend of progressives—this summer he’ll be tried on felony and misdemeanor charges related to his handling of a fatal police shooting case (he has pleaded not guilty)—he did strike a short-lived deal with Walmart last year stipulating that two of its stores would not contact law enforcement regarding shoplifting incidents unless the loss exceeded $100.
Abelove’s intent, he later told the Times Union, “was to work to reduce costly overcrowding in both courts and the jails, especially for first-time, non-violent offenders.” But local police departments and the county sheriff opposed the policy. Amid public outcry, the prosecutor rescinded the agreement just hours after the Times Union reported its existence.
Separate and apart from his criminal justice advocacy work, Cox serves as director of policing strategies for the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) National Support Bureau, which, in his prior role as police chief, he helped bring to Albany in 2016.
The program, which remains in effect in the capital city, allows police officers to “exercise discretionary authority at point of contact to divert individuals to a community-based, harm reduction intervention for law violations driven by unmet behavioral health needs,” according to the city’s website. Cops hand off individuals to one of three case managers, who complete an initial (and, later, a more complete) needs assessment. As long as individuals complete the process, the low-level alleged offense that first attracted an officer’s attention—like shoplifting, drug possession, or trespassing—is never prosecuted.
“It’s frustrating when you arrest the same person over and over again and nothing changes,” Cox said, when asked why some officers like the program. “And I think that’s what a lot of the cops see. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna have to deal with this person for the 10th time this week.’ Something’s gotta change. I think they realize that there’s some insanity to the way we run the criminal justice system so they wanted a different tool.”
The program has now diverted more than a hundred people in Albany, Cox said. Operational guidelines, thanks to LEAD’s collaborative structure, which includes a governing board and an operations group, have changed over time. At the program’s inception, for instance, officers wanted to bring potential diversion candidates to a station for booking. If candidates were later found ineligible for diversion, the reasoning went, this would speed along the arrest process.
But the trip to the station made diversion something like a two-hour process. After a few months, officers asked if they could make diversions on the street instead. Now it’s a half-hour process, Cox said.
In this way, LEAD is malleable. In Seattle, where the program originated, cops can now refer people to LEAD before they are alleged to have committed a crime—something not yet done in Albany, Cox said, though it could be considered in the future.
Another change: Initially, people who had open warrants were not allowed to participate in LEAD. This excluded people who might have incurred a bench warrant for failing to show up to court for a minor offense (not always an easy feat when you’re suffering from addiction, homelessness or both). Now, at the request of police officers, there’s a process in place for candidates with open warrants to participate in LEAD. “That was a big win,” Cox said.
The list of charges eligible for diversion, as outlined in the program’s first annual report, has not yet changed. While it already includes non-violent misdemeanors and violations, it may eventually be expanded, Cox said. “But I also think…maybe it’s time the state steps up and takes some things off the books that are not helping,” he added.
Like what? Possession of marijuana, for one, he said. “It puts us at odds with our community. It’s been decriminalized, [but] I’m not huge on decriminalization because it doesn’t take the police out of the equation.”
In February, we covered a lecture in Troy by Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. Vitale argues that police have, in effect, become America’s primary, if not only, tool for managing the consequences of poverty caused by “rapacious neoliberalism.”
“Every societal problem has been turned over to the police to deal with,” said Vitale, who started his lecture with the story of a Bronx senior citizen who was shot and killed by police while experiencing a mental-health crisis in her apartment. (The shooter was acquitted the same day as the lecture, incidentally.)
Brendan Cox is almost certainly more moderate than Vitale, but it seems the two agree that cops are expected to do too much. In the middle of the night, unless there’s a safety issue, Cox said, people shouldn’t have to call 911 if a loved one needs access to mental-health services.
“No matter what, when we enter the fray, it’s still law enforcement,” he said. “At the end of the day, if things go bad, we have handcuffs.”