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Albany Police Chief Hawkins Meets Community Members In Arbor Hill Forum

Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins got an earful Monday night during a meeting with about 50 area neighbors at the Arbor Hill Community Center. It was the first of three meetings organizers hope will provide the community with a platform for systemic change. 

Hawkins briefly addressed the gathering which was followed by a lengthy public comments period.

Emotions ran high. Neighbors vented frustration, confusion, anger and disillusionment with the Albany Police Department.

One attendee said early on that people in the room didn't come there to talk about anything but police-community relations in the aftermath of a March 16th incident partially captured on body cam in which Albany officers got into a physical confrontation with a man on First Street.  

It resulted in the arrest of one police officer and the suspension of two others.   "You gotta be able to trust your men under you and the community needs to  be able to trust the men under you." "When we're wrong, justice happens swiftly and fast. But when it's done wrong to us, it's a whole bunch of stops and checkpoints that don't exist on the reverse side." "Stop tellin' us we're sad, that we're angry, that we don't have no rights. Our rights is our community. It's ours. They don't belong here. We do."

The chief listened as he faced a parade of neighbors and activists. Some applauded his efforts, others demanded more accountability.

The elephant in the room: the fact Hawkins and other high-ranking police and city officials learned about the First Street incident via Facebook.

Liston Cyrus is president of the local NAACP chapter.   "It should not have come to your through social media that this happened. I work in corporate America. I have 50 people working for me. I have terminated people, not for executing an action, but seeing it and doing nothing. So we should not be talking about one or two, we should be talking of the individuals whose job it is to stop, prevent crime, to stop, look at a crime, a violent crime, and did not call you, did not report it, and if no one had reported it, this would not have happened. There's not one or two people that should be held accountable. It's the entire group that saw that crime and did nothing."

Long-time community advocate Marlon Anderson thanked Hawkins for stepping forward "in the eye of the storm." He asked how the chief would "change the status quo of policing in the city" and why more officers of color have not been heard.    "Black police were created to advocate for black people, and we have not heard any advocation from black police for black people. And I would like you to advance that agenda, put the black officers forward, to the community, to put their voices out there to be heard. Again I want to thank you chief for coming forward, and please keep up the good work."

Hawkins responded:   "We still must support those officers who are out there, who are putting their lives on the line every day doing the right thing for the right reasons. And we don't want to indict an entire police department over the actions of one or two or a few. But certainly, certainly, we have to hold officers accountable who are engaged in conduct that is unacceptable or conduct that is unlawful."

Anthony Mohammed is the Albany representative of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.  "Where is the good officers at? If 11 of 'em is no damn good, we wanna know where the good ones at. Another thing, have you looked into any of the body cam footage of those particular officers' past experience to find out do they always do this? We wanna know."

Hawkins told reporters later:   "We haven't found any yet and we don't know if we are going to find any. But we are reviewing previous body-worn video of those officers involved."

The chief also said steps are being taken to ensure that the disconnect that occurred with both his not being aware of the incident and city hall's claim it never received any complaints about the "party house" on First Street will never happen again.   "We should have been exchanging information a little bit better. There should've been a more substantive collaboration between all of the different departments that deal with those sorts of things. We have that going forward, and I'm optimistic."

Despite police events like pop-up-barbecues, residents told the chief they felt his officers weren't really trying to get to know them as a community. One woman said police officers stationed inside the meeting room were making her nervous. The two white officers were then invited to the front of the room to sit down beside Hawkins, who later said he had assigned them to their initial positions.

Hawkins says the investigation into the First Street incident has not been concluded and that more suspensions, and perhaps more arrests could come as every officer on the scene that night is being reviewed.

Hawkins plans to meet with the community again, twice in May.

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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