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Tear gas, police oversight discussion continues among Albany Common Councilors

The Albany Common Council Public Safety Committee met on Zoom September 30, 2021.
Zoom Screenshot
The Albany Common Council Public Safety Committee met via Zoom September 30, 2021.

At its latest meeting, the Albany Common Council Public Safety Committee discussed two proposed local laws affecting public safety.

Local Law L would amend city code relating to creating a public safety commission, a citizen panel separate from the police department that would serve as bridge connecting the community with the mayor. 10th ward councilor Owusu Anane says there is distrust between the community and law enforcement.

“Currently, the police chief reports to the mayor, and quite frankly, serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Having this police commission is going to put a commission of stakeholders, people from the business community, from the neighborhood, from the community, where the police chief will have to respond to. And quite frankly, I think this is a positive aspect, “ Anane said.

Anane went on Thursday to suggest the commission could weigh in on the police department's use of tear gas, but stressed that city residents should help determine whether the police chief should answer to the mayor. The Public Safety Commission panelists would be paid city employees. The agency would be structured and empowered with policymaking, oversight and transparency in mind in making rules and regulations for the police department to follow.

Ava Ayers, Director of the Government Law Center and Assistant Professor of Law at Albany Law School, advised the panel that the police department's policy manual is over a thousand pages. “It's not the kind of thing that the Common Council can spend a year sort of tinkering through all of those policies.”

Ayers notes that the Commission will have the power to decide which kinds of responses are handled by the police and which are handled by the Public Safety Department. “Disturbances, minor thefts, destruction of property, investigation of crimes, domestic disputes, domestic violence, noise complaints, neighbor disputes, child abuse, environmental conditions, traffic, first aid, wellness checks, death notifications. There's a there's a sort of long list of things, including taking reports, which we learned in the collaborative as is the number one call that people make to the Albany police department is can you make a report. The commission will be looking at is that something that police should be doing? Or is that something that the Department of Public Safety can be doing. ”

Local Law M would amend city code regarding the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on civilians. It covers who can authorize their use and under what circumstances. The council has wrestled with the issue for several months, unable to agree on a proposed ban under Local Law C. Concerns were raised that if police were denied access to tear gas and rubber bullets during civil unrest, they would have to use deadly force. 11th ward councilor Alfredo Balarin witnessed rioting in downtown Albany the summer of 2020. He says he saw a man tossing Molotov Cocktails at mounted police.

“OK, so he throws the one, it gets knocked down, he goes and gets another one, does the same thing. They were shooting him with rubber bullets. If it weren't for that capability, they would have to have to shoot him. So how do we address that issue?” Balarin asked.

1st ward Councilor Sonia Frederick supports the full ban, and isn't convinced Local Law M is the answer.

“It's too vague on the multiple instances where it says ‘no alternative to the use of chemical, chemical weapons are available to ensure the safety,’ I would like to see something specified about what the alternative uses are, so that it's super clear that, you know, all of these should not be available prior to and considering the view."

Some councilors said bean bag rounds would be as effective as rubber bullets. Again, Frederick:

“I think it's in our all our best interest to get this reworked, be able to see what the amended version looks like and have another conversation.”

4th ward councilor Kelly Kimbrough, a former Albany Police officer, introduced Local Law M:

“Again, we're divided. We're, we're, we're just going to keep going round and round. “

The panelists agreed to continue conversations before Local Laws L and M go to a vote. Here's a look at both proposals:

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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