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Bridging The Police/Community Gap

Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins at a Facebook Live ACCPAC presentation.
Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins at a Facebook Live ACCPAC presentation.

The death of George Floyd and the national outcry it spawned has municipal police departments and elected officials scrambling to institute changes some say are long overdue.
About two weeks after a day of protests ended in violent demonstrations in Albany, ACCPAC, the Albany Community Police Advisory Committee, held a virtual forum with police chief Eric Hawkins to address community concerns. Hawkins says the department is doing its best to adjust to the one-two punch dealt by the pandemic and the Floyd killing.

"Right now the police department is 58 sworn officers short. So we have 58 vacancies right now. And prior to COVID the plan was to hire 50 officers in our next academy which we're hoping to get started very, very soon. And after COVID, it presented some budgetary challenges for the city of Albany and other cities across the country, so we had to scale back the number of officers that we're going to put into our academy in the next few weeks. And so now the plan is to hire 30 officers to fill those 58 vacancies at this point."

Mayor Kathy Sheehan, a Democrat, recently signed an executive order involving police reforms including the banning of choke holds and knee-on-neck holds by city officers, and a requirment officers review the history of racism and systemic violence, calling the effort "critical to building trust and accountability of policing in our city." Hawkins elaborates:

"So right now, the officers in our academy, they go through all of the normal training that police officers get, where there's use of force, de-escalation, implicit bias, you know, all of the traditional things like that. But one of the new things this year, and this is through the mayor's executive order, is we'll have a curriculum on the history of racism in society as well as in law enforcement. And I believe it will be an 8 hour course in that, so that'll be one addition to the training this year."

In Hudson, first-term Democratic Mayor Kamal Johnson, responding to what he terms an "underlying problem of police brutality" in American society, cut the police budget by 10 percent, instituted a hiring freeze and outlined several police reforms in an executive order.

"One of the things that I wanted to do different was that I wanted to have our police chief and our police commissioner a part of those conversations with the community. So we are going to starting an advisory and reconciliation committee. I don't believe that the bias trainings and all these trainings actually work. There's data that says they don't, unless officers have a total buy-in from it. So I want to mend the relationship between the police and community."

Hawkins says he directs patrol officers to get out of their vehicles and engage. He adds police will continue to work on serving community needs and there's a possibility police neighborhood units — smaller stations situated in densely populated areas that operated during the 1970's — could come back.

"I'm certainly, as chief of police, open to those types of ideas. I think it's important right now that in law enforcement we take a step back. You know we have an understanding of what community policing can look like, what can be effective, what has been effective in the past, but things have changed. We really are in a new day and new time in terms of poliicng. There's demands on policing now that I haven't seen in all of my time in police work."

Troy Mayor Patrick Madden, also a Democrat, says the city is giving the police review board concept another go.Protesters, including those with the group Justice For Dahmeek, have been calling for a new civilian review board with subpoena power, largely composed of representatives from communities most impacted by police violence.Madden says the door is open for anyone wishing to apply.

"We've put together some training materials, put together some operating procedures, to ensure that has every possible chance of succeeding this time around. And I'm confident. We've got some great people who have stepped forward who want to serve on the board. They are eager to get going once we can gather again in a room and go throughthe training procedures and bring them up to speed, we'll be off and running."

Madden believes the review board presents an opportunity to shed light on practices, training protocols and the approach and philosophy of the police department.

Back in Albany, Hawkins thinks that police departments should not be static entities.

."You know it's almost as if we're hitting a 'reset' button. And quite frankly I think that this is something that should happen every few years anyway, without a mandate from the governor's office or from the fderal government. We really should every few years look at what we have in place and determine whether it's still responsive to the needs of the community. So this is a very exciting time for us."

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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