Policing, Racism And The Black Lives Matter Movement In Albany
Following the May death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody – Albany experienced a slew of protests and riots, New York repealed a law that restricted access to police disciplinary records and a statewide mandate to reimagine policing was instituted. To learn how these events have impacted policing in New York’s capital city, I rode along with an Albany Police lieutenant and spoke with a local Black rights activist.
Albany is experiencing one of the most violent years in its history. There have been more than 100
shootings in the city in 2020, an increase of over 240% since last year. As I ride down Central Avenue in Albany Police Lieutenant Devin Anderson’s patrol car, he says it’s the result of a perfect storm.
“Bail reform. Discovery reform. The George Floyd incident, and the pandemic – all at once – within a short period of time – has changed policing,” Anderson said.
Anderson has been an officer in the Albany Police Department for 14 years. He says the recent unrest around civil rights has affected policing more than the COVID-19 pandemic. But he says his fellow officers don’t deserve to be targets of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I can only speak for Albany PD that I don’t believe we have a race problem in any way shape or form,” Anderson said.
I asked him what he meant by “race problem.”
“I do not believe the people I work with make decisions based on race,” Anderson said. It’s as easy as that. Yes, we are primarily in the inner city neighborhoods which are primarily minority but that’s because that’s where we’re called for service. That’s where we’re needed. It’s not… It’s not a racial thing.”
Anderson, who is white, is pretty indignant about the accusation that the Albany Police Department might have racist cops. He says Albany has been a frontrunner in fair policing for decades. The department was named in President Obama’s 2016 Task Force on 21st Century Policing as an example of what to do right.
Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins says that officer will be terminated.
“I do believe that law enforcement has become the main target for society’s problems right now,” Anderson said.
Anderson says it’s not that racism doesn’t exist, but it’s not fair to pin all the frustration on the police.
“They don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me,” Anderson said. They’re making assumptions based on social media and news media and rumors and stuff like that with – they’re ignorant. They don’t – they have no knowledge of what actually happens.”
He references a demonstration in Albany in May. Following peaceful protests earlier on, a man threw a brick at a patrol car and several people hurled trash at a line of cops. The tense standoff lasted for hours as officers used horses, tear gas, and explosives to disperse the crowd.
“I mean half those people weren’t from Albany and have never dealt with an Albany cop,” Anderson said. “I mean Albany – we weren’t involved in any of the stuff people are protesting about. We haven’t been involved in any of the stuff people are protesting about. It’s just that, if it happens in Minneapolis, Minnesota because of the way the 24-hour news cycle and social media and everything like that…”
Recent History Leading To Mistrust
Dr. Alice Green is the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany. She is a Black woman
and has been an activist in the community for decades. She says the Albany Police Department may not have been involved in any of the recent, viral instances of police brutality, but they do not have a spotless record.
“The Center for Law and Justice was started because six police officers who knew this one young man who was mentally handicapped was making noise and they followed him to his apartment. He locked the door on them. They climbed up the roof and looked through the window and blew Jessie Davis’ brains out,” Green said.
In the 1984 incident, Green says Davis was found to have a keychain and a toy truck in his hand, but police said he came at them with a knife and a fork.
“But those police officers got off,” Green said. “They weren’t indicted, they got off. We have gone through killings of Black people in Albany. Maybe not yesterday. But we have.”
And then there’s the case of 19-year-old Ellazar Williams, who was shot in the back by an Albany Police officer in 2018 and paralyzed. APD cleared Detective James Olsen of any wrongdoing. Green says the community hasn’t trusted city police since.
“We have a long history of police brutality in Albany and of killing of Black people,” Green said. “No, the country didn’t hear about Ellazar, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
“There are very hard-working, well-trained officers in this department that go out every day to do the best they can,” Anderson said. “Mistakes happen. We don’t work in a zero defect world. As long as they’re attempting to do the right thing… I don’t… We don’t work in a zero defect world. As long as their intent was to do the right thing. Mistakes of the heart versus mistakes of the mind.”
“‘People make mistakes’ that’s part of the bad apple philosophy,” Green said. That if something happens in the police department, if an officer does something wrong, it’s that officer. He’s a ‘bad apple’ in an otherwise good, fair department.’”
Green says police departments focus their training on individual officers, teaching them to reject stereotypes. She says this isn’t helpful because everyone has implicit bias, and while it’s good to work on that, it’s treating a symptom, not the disease. The disease, she says, is that systemic racism is historically inherent in all police departments.
Albany Police Department Spokesman Steve Smith released the implicit bias training to WAMC, dated June 2015.
A recent report on racial bias in the Albany Police Department by an outside auditor hired by the city finds differences in the outcome of arrests based on a person’s skin color. The audit also says there is a need for better data collection regarding traffic stops and a clarification of the APD's “use of force” policy for officers.
Green doesn’t recommend implicit bias training.
“If I’m an individual police officer I would shrug it off and say, ‘Well you’ve taught me that everybody has
biases so don’t blame me. There’s nothing wrong with me,’ we’re saying you’ve got to look at the system and how individuals fit into the system,” Green said. “So I see that as a real problem, that’s something we’ve been trying to get the police department to understand. If you’re put into a system that routinely operates on those stereotypes: that Black people are inherently criminal, that they are most likely going to commit a crime, that they’re dangerous, that they’re violent… You’re going to react, and the police department will support you, you’re going to react to that person because of the institutional bias that’s there.”
In other words, you won’t be racist sitting in a classroom but out on the street you will still react differently to a Black man approaching you than a white man. And, Green claims, if you shoot that Black man, the police department will back you.
Anderson says things have been tense with the community, but they could be worse.
“If we were doing real proactive policing again I think that it would probably get worse pretty quick,” Anderson said.
According to Anderson there are two approaches: Reactive and proactive policing. Reactive is waiting for a call on the radio and responding. But by then the incident has already happened. You didn’t prevent anything. Proactive is patrolling the streets, identifying sketchy situations, and asking people what's going on. Maybe dispersing a crowd before it gets rowdy. Maybe breaking up a dice game.
Green says this entire concept is racist. She says it’s profiling, and the opposite of community policing.
“They don’t do that in white communities, I’m gonna tell you that right now,” Green said. “But when they do it in Black communities you are using stereotypes, you are causing people who do not trust you to mistrust you even more.”
She says Black people want the same thing as everyone else: to feel safe and not be constantly interfered with.
“Could very well be a violation of the constitutional rights of those people who are gathered on the street, which they have a right to do, and they also have a right not to be stopped by the police without cause,” Green said.
But Anderson says the community calls the cops about the loitering, dice, and partying. The same community that will yell insults at him on the street.
“The general public – in other parts of the city – aren’t missing out on anything. It’s not affecting them. It’s in the areas that are screaming to defund the police that are most affected by it. That’s why crime is up,” Anderson said.
Green says there’s just as much crime where white people live, specifically drugs, but the police aren’t in those neighborhoods breathing down their necks.
“Sol Greenberg was a DA in Albany years back and he told me, he says, ‘Hey we’re gonna go where we think we can actually see people violating laws. OK? So that means we’re gonna be in the Black community because you can’t see what’s going on in white communities.’ They can close their doors, they can be in their backyard or be in their offices, be involved in drugs at the very same level if not higher than Black people, therefore Black people are the ones who get arrested,” Green said.
Greenberg, a Democrat who was Albany County District Attorney for roughly 25 years before retiring in 2000, died in 2017.
Anderson says right now, cops are between a rock and a hard place. The rock is residents wanting to feel safe. The hard place is residents not wanting cops around. He says there’s uncertainty and hesitation.
“Nobody wants to be the next 5 minute, 15 second clip I guess on the news, you know, for doing something that’s taken out of context,” Anderson said. “And somebody has a cell phone video that only shows part of the incident. Not the whole incident. So nobody wants that to be them.”
Use of Force and So-Called Black-on-Black Crime
Anderson says people need to remember that cops are called to control dangerous situations, and he says that requires force.
“Kneeling is – I mean if somebody is fighting and wants to get up you have to put your body weight on them and the most effective way to do that is a knee,” Anderson said. “You get pain compliance and muscle compliance right there, you know, you have to control somebody you have limited options especially if they’re larger than you if you can get on top of them and hold them down a knee on the back, or a knee on the shoulder, a knee on the side of the head – it’s excruciating and very good at holding a person in place.”
Anderson admits that national attention on police behavior is having an effect, just maybe an unintended one.
“I am positive – I know that officers are definitely going to hesitate to use force in a situation where it’s going to be run through the media, tried by the media, you’re going to be taken out of work – run the risk of being doxxed where all your personal public information is put out and that’s happening all over the country right now with the protests,” Anderson said. “So, yes. Officers are going to hesitate to use force so I do believe that it is possible that they’re more likely to use force on a white person than somebody else.”
Green says, why use force at all? She says it’s time to reimagine the role of the police in the community, as Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered.
“And I doubt very much if police officers are going to go around shooting white people because the white community will not stand for it,” Green said. “They will not stand for their sons or their daughters being brutalized by police. Trust me -- that will not happen.”
Anderson maintains that if someone ends up on the pavement with a knee to their back, it’s because they did something to get there. Like swing a baseball bat while approaching a cop, which I saw happen the night I rode along with him.
“The general public dictates – the people we are dealing with dictate the amount of force used when force
is used, dictate how a situation is handled,” Anderson said. “A gentleman swinging a baseball bat over his head as I am talking to somebody while walking toward me, runs the risk of having force used against him. That’s probably not a good idea.”
Anderson says every shooting that came across his desk this summer was minority on minority. Dr. Green and Anderson have different theories as to why.
“Just the… The culture… With those groups… Are violent,” Anderson said. “Nobody fights with their fists anymore they settle scores with guns. I mean, society is desensitized.”
Green says it’s racist to say that certain cultures are more violent, and points to the long legacy of segregation. She says if you are Black and all your neighbors are Black and you have a conflict with someone you know, chances are that person will also be Black.
“It should not be defined as Black on Black crime because there’s also white on white crime. Same thing,” Green said.
FBI data from 2017 says 80% of white victims were killed by white offenders, 88.5% of Black victims were killed by Black offenders.
“Does that mean that my skin determines whether I’m violent? I don’t think so. Does my skin determine that I’m a criminal? I don’t think so. You know? Does my skin say I’m inferior? I don’t think so,” Green said.
One thing Officer Anderson and Dr. Green agree on is that education plays a role in the success of Black communities.
“Education is part of it. Mediation is part of it. Hope is part of it,” Anderson said. “You know, when these kids idolize the kids that are out on the street, living that life, that’s the life they’re gonna live.”
Green says it’s more about lack of funding for schools.
In January 2020, statistics gathered by the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at Brandeis University on the Child Opportunity Index 2.0 show that Black children in Albany are 7.6 times more likely than white children to live in neighborhoods with substantially lower opportunities to grow up healthy.
“If you live in the city of Albany your tax base is much less than someone who lives in Loudonville,” Green said. “So your school system has less money.”
Green says less money means less resources, like equipment for virtual learning during the pandemic. She calls it a school to prison pipeline.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2018, about 1.5 million Americans were in prison in the United States.
According to 2018 census data, there were about 40 million Black people in the U.S. and about 250 million white people. So about six times as many white people. But according to the Bureau of Justice statistics National Prisoner Statistics Program , in 2018 about 51,000 white people were in federal prisons and about 67,000 Black people were in federal prisons.
The imprisonment rate of Black males was 5.8 times that of white males, and the imprisonment rate of Black females was 1.8 times the rate of white females.
Dr. Green’s Center for Law and Justice has called for greater transparency from the Albany Police Department for years, including repealing 50-A, a policy she says officers used to hide behind when they used excessive force, saying personnel records could not be released. After lawmakers moved on the matter, Governor Cuomo signed a repeal of 50-A this year following the death of George Floyd.
But Anderson says the call from protestors to subpoena officers’ personal records is the wrong solution.
“People don’t like being arrested,” Anderson said. “People make false complaints against the cops all the time because it’s a way of de-legitimizing their arrest. Every cop that’s got more than a couple days on the street, more than five years say, has had false complaints made against him, myself included. They’re unsubstantiated, they’re unfounded – if that file goes out people are still going to see that those complaints were made. The general public believes those complaints because right now the general public doesn’t believe the police.”
Anderson says the equivalent would be if someone said that every story I reported was false because they didn’t like something I wrote about them.
“But there are reporters who make stuff up,” I said. “And there are cops who do bad things so what is then the solution to prove that a cop has a history of racism? What’s the solution then?”
“There are how many hundreds of thousands of cops in America,” Anderson said. “How many hundreds of thousands of calls for service go out on a daily basis? And how many legitimate complaints happen? Like I said, people don’t like getting arrested. People make false complains all the time.”
Courts in New York are still sorting out whether unsubstituted claims can be released under the repeal of 50-A, or if it only applies to substantiated claims.
Green claims she has had to file Freedom of Information requests to get reports on shootings in the past. She says she still hasn’t received the full report on an incident on First Street, for which an officer was arrested and two more were suspended.
Smith, the APD spokesperson, says APD has cooperated as much as the law allows during an ongoing investigation, saying, “Dr. Green did submit a FOIL request regarding the First Street incident, that’s the process for turning over any documents and we turned over what we’re legally able to turn over. That case is still ongoing with the officers going through the process in accordance with their collective bargaining agreements.”
“The community needs to know when its police officers are misbehaving, or acting unprofessional,” Green said. “And also, it’s an issue of transparency, which we consider the biggest problem in the police department. They don’t share information they should with the community. They also hide body cam recordings.”
“We don’t just arbitrarily release body cam footage because of witness privacy and victim privacy and we don’t want to compromise any ongoing investigations,” Smith said, adding that when it comes to the First Street incident, Dr. Green was one of only two people outside of the police department to view the footage.
In April 2019, after Green saw the footage, she told WAMC it was disturbing, saying officers showed up at to a house call on First Street and 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,” Green said. “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."
Five-year veteran officer Luke Deer beat the man with a nightstick. Deer was arrested. Two other officers were suspended.
Defund the Police?
Officer Anderson says people shout things at him all the time now. Like, “defund the police” or various expletives, not suitable for the radio.
“Law and order is what keeps America what it is,” Anderson said. “If the police weren’t here we would devolve into chaos. I mean, you’re seeing that in other parts of the country where the riots continue and the police are taking a really big step back. So… it’s got to work itself out.”
Dr. Green argues police are exacerbating the problem, saying they don’t prevent crime, they only react to it. Green says only if impoverished communities improve will crime numbers fall.
“It’s the community and the way people are treated, the way they are allowed to survive with dignity, that helps deal with anti-social behavior,” Green said.
Green says she doesn’t favor the term “defund the police” because it implies that police departments would be abolished and there would just be an empty hole. She says the justice system needs to be focused on rehabilitation.
Like Albany's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD program, which attempts to provide treatment services for addiction and mental illness for individuals who commit low-level crimes -- instead of sending them to jail. Albany County Executive Dan McCoy announced this fall that the program will receive an $898,000 grant from the U.S Department of Justice. Dr. Green says she helped write the budget proposal for the program, but was not informed that one had been approved, for how much, or where the money would go.
Green says she hopes it goes to creating more case managers for community outreach.
“The prisons have been shown to exacerbate the problem,” Green said. “Prisons cause criminal behavior. They do not solve the problem. So we’ve got to rethink all that – that punishment isn’t necessarily the answer to public safety. I would change the name of the Albany Police Department to the Albany Department of Public Safety. It’s everybody’s job to be involved in it in different kinds of ways. We’ve got to do something to get rid of that culture that thinks black people are inferior and that they’re criminal.”
Green says crime comes from poverty, not skin color. She says people who have little money and who feel marginalized make decisions based on survival that privileged people don’t have to make.
“Poverty and racism can put stress on certain groups where they might feel they have to respond in certain kinds of ways,” Green said.
Green says you cannot begin to understand systemic racism if you don’t learn the history of the United States.
Green says the disadvantages of Black people can be traced to slavery, and so can policing -- when she says police officers were used to bring escaped slaves back to plantations and would announce when lynchings would occur, like it was entertainment.
But Green doesn’t think police officers are bad.
“They’re simply people who have been drawn into a system that goes way back to protect white people and their property,” Green said.
Anderson, who is 44 years old, says the 70s were very similar to today, in terms of protests and civil rights tension.
It’s a pendulum, he says. It’ll swing back. But Dr. Green doesn’t want a pendulum, she wants a rocket -- to use the momentum of this time to push the conversation in a new direction.
Green says even after the protests, it feels like Albany officials and cops have the attitude of, “Yes, racism is a problem in the country, but Albany is no worse than any other city.”
“They try to get themselves off the hook and say, ‘Well, I’m not responsible,’ nobody’s saying you’re
responsible! We’re saying that this is the way our society is functioning and it’s treating certain people unequally, it’s putting a lot of people out of the mainstream of life in society, so it is your responsibility to deal with it,” Green said.
Green says the first step of that responsibility is to learn. She recommends the books White Fragility: Why It's So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.
And she says responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “all lives matter” misses the point.
“That’s exactly what Black Lives Matter is saying – that all lives matter. But we haven’t seen that happen in this country,” Green said. “We have not seen equity. We have not seen people of color – Black people – treated equally.”
On May 30, following the death of George Floyd, there was a protest outside an Albany Police branch in the South End.
Dr. Alice Green, Officer Devin Anderson, and I were all there, although we didn’t know each other yet. Dr. Green was there as an activist, watching the boiling over of tensions that she had been predicting and warning city officials of for years. I rushed there as a reporter, documenting it with a practiced air of removal, but saddled with my own white guilt. And Detective Anderson took his spot in a line of unblinking police, while trash and fire rained down on him, thinking of his wife and two kids at home.
“Throughout this, have you ever doubted whether or not you want to still be a cop,” I asked.
“I have four years to go until retirement,” Anderson said. “Yes. Absolutely. 100%.”
“Why,” I asked.
“Do something where I, at the end of the day I have something to show for my labors,” Anderson said.
“Do you feel like, right now, police officers don’t have anything to show for it,” I asked.
“It’s different,” Anderson said. “You know, we deal with the same people over and over and over for the same things over and over and over with the criminal justice reforms that have happened in the last year a lot of times they’re out. If you look at some of the crime we had this past summer, some of the homicides and stuff it’s the same people being involved in them all that are arrested on a charge, and released and doing it again so… It gets frustrating. The pendulum swings and at some point in time people are going to realize that they’ve had enough and be asking for the police to come back -- instead of screaming ‘defund the police.’”