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Community Leaders React To Albany Police Body Cam Incident

The Albany Police Department uses the Axon Body Camera System.
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
The Albany Police Department uses the Axon Body Camera System.

The day after an Albany Police officer was arrested and two others were suspended, body cam video of the police encounter with First Street residents on March 16th was released. It’s the latest problematic headline for the city’s new police chief.

The implementation of body cameras has come full circle in Albany.  "When we made the commitment to body-worn cameras it was with the commitment to transparency, and this is unfortunately one of those times where that transparency led to us seeing things that did not meet the standards of this department and this department is responding accordingly."

Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Police Chief Eric Hawkins called reporters to police headquarters Tuesday to recap  the altercation between officers and occupants of a house on First Street, which has a history of service calls.  "It's a place where residents along that block have called about numerous times, it's a problem place."

Center For Law and Justice Executive Director Alice Green found the police body camera footage disturbing. She said officers who showed up at the house were rude, uttered obscenities then broke down the door after the man who answered it asked if they had a warrant.  "... they said 'if you don't come out or let us in, we're gonna go in and get you.' And that's exactly what they did. They got through the door, pulled the man who was at the door out of the apartment and basically threw him into the street. And then the video shows police officers beating the gentleman with a stick."

Chief Hawkins says 10 to 12 officers were involved in early morning street skirmish.  "One of my officers should not have assaulted another person during that type of run without justification."

Although Hawkins initially said no weapons were used, a department spokesman later clarified that five-year veteran officer Luke Deer beat the man with a nightstick, which Green saw on the video.  Deer was arrested. Two other officers were suspended.

Authorities fast-tracked the release of body cam video Wednesday. It was shown in court and all charges were dropped against three residents arrested during the incident, which a citizen also recorded on a cellphone and uploaded to Facebook. It was that post that was copied and emailed to an unnamed city employee, who then forwarded it to police officials. Again, Hawkins:   "We received notice of it later on that same day and we actually received the video itself that following Monday, so that would have been the 18th."

The file raised a red flag, prompting officials to review stored body cam footage.  Green had been tipped off to the citizen video earlier.   "It had been there and the community knew about and we were a little surprised that there wasn't more of a reaction to it immediately, but I think the police department had to look at it, study it, and see exactly what had taken place and also talk to the D.A.'s office to see what needed to be done. So I think that took a little while, but I'm pleased to say that the police chief did contact me fairly early on, I would say, to mention that this had taken place and that they were thinking about what should be done."

Hawkins was disappointed about the way he came to know about the incident.   "I should never find out about these sorts of confrontations through a third party. I fully expect that if there is any sort of misconduct that our officers self-report. And clearly that didn't happen in this case."

Hawkins emphasized that the “overwhelming amount” of his officers are upstanding.    "...doing just that, the right thing for the right reason. They're serving with distinction, they're serving with pride. They're putting their lives on the line every single day."

Common Councilor Owusu Anane represents the Pines Hills neighborhood:  "I want to thank the men and women who put their lives on the line day in and day out to make sure that the city of Albany is safe. I have a great deal of respect for individuals who go into law enforcement and to serve the public. At the same time, we have to hold those accountable who violate the public trust. The city of Albany over the past couple of years has done a concrete job of trying to bridge the gap between law enforcement and several communities. And with that we have to hold those accountable who violate the public trust."

The Albany Police Officers Union did not return requests for comment. On its Facebook page, the union posted “Each and every officer involved, will through the appropriate process have the opportunity to vindicate their names. The APOU stands behind our members and they will have our full support.”

Common Councilor Dorcey Applyrs of the 1st ward chairs the Public Safety Committee.  She says she has been fielding emails and calls about the body cam videos, and feels a round of apologies are in order, to the three victims, their families, the people in the First Street neighborhood, and to anyone traumatized by witnessing the event or after seeing the footage.  "Myself and other members of the council will be closely monitoring this matter as it plays out in our legal system to think about what we can do to address this matter presently, but also to prevent matters like this from happening in the future."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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