Albany Common Councilors Grill Police Chief Over Clearing Of Protestors | WAMC

Albany Common Councilors Grill Police Chief Over Clearing Of Protestors

Apr 29, 2021

Chief Eric Hawkins, speaking during a virtual common council session Wednesday night, defended Albany police actions that cleared protestors from their encampment outside South Station last week.

The dramatic scene that unfolded at South Station has drawn sharp criticism from activists and some city officials. Civil rights leaders say the clash — where some police officers were seen covering their badge numbers after giving protestors 15 minutes to vacate — eroded trust.

"So overall, there were three goals that were outlined at the very outset with this operation. We needed to clear that roadway, we needed to do so in a way that avoided injuries to protestors or officers. And we needed to create a safe space and a lawful space for people to exercise their First Amendment rights. And we accomplished all three of those."

Hawkins told councilors a letter he had received from the Albany Police Officers Union about the situation at South Station had no impact on his decision to clear the streets. The union did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WAMC.

During the expulsion, some officers placed tape over their badge numbers. Hawkins says policy requires officers in uniform to display their badges and badge numbers.

"It's impossible for officers to engage in inappropriate conduct under the circumstance, under those circumstances that we saw an excuse detection and identification. There are fixed mounted cameras in the area. Body worn cameras. Citizens are recording the event on their cell phones, social media recordings, every single action that an officer takes during such an incident is being recorded and often on multiple sources. If there were any complaints of inappropriate conduct that needed to be investigated, we are 100 percent certain that we will be able to identify the officers involved with or without badge numbers. And the officers are all aware of that."

Hawkins took issue with councilors' labeling the South Station occupation participants as "peaceful protestors" as he walked the panel through the chain of events leading up to the eviction.

"It was very clear at that time that these were not peaceful protesters. They indicated by their actions that in fact, they were quite hostile and aggressive towards the officers who merely came out to advise them that they had 15 minutes to leave. And even before being advised by the officers, they were demonstrating this very hostile and aggressive behavior."

Hawkins told councilors six days of unlawful occupation was "enough" and police felt the protestors had "no intention whatsoever of complying with any lawful orders, or to leave."

Appearing on WAMC's Roundtable Thursday, Chief City Auditor Dorcey Applyrs, a Democrat who has been involved in the city’s police reform process, was asked if she had lost confidence in police command staff.

"You know, I will say that I would never lose confidence and hope. That being said, I am clear that many of our residents have lost confidence and hope. And so that's the role of folks like myself in public service, who have been elected to lead and serve, we have to work even harder to restore that, that hope and trust, because for many, it's not there."

Last week Applyrs and six councilors branded the South Station incident “disheartening and overly aggressive.” In a joint statement they said Albany Police should be exercising extra caution to de-escalate matters and utilize trusted voices to address concerns of injustice and police brutality.

Applyrs said on WAMC there is a need to create a culture that is inclusive and respectful of others.

"I was speaking to elementary school, a class and I asked the kids, 'if you saw someone fighting, would you call the police?' And they said, No. And I asked 'why?' And they said, 'because I don't feel safe.' They said, 'I think the police would escalate,' they didn't use the word escalate, but essentially what they were saying, 'I think the police would escalate the issue and someone would get hurt.'"

Applyrs says a culture shift is needed to enable diversification and build trust in law enforcement, leading to recruitment of "the types of candidates that we want to see patrolling our streets, interfacing with our community members."