This week, the Albany police chief and the Center for Law and Justice held a forum to discuss community-police relations and trust.
In a lively session Tuesday evening with about two dozen city residents at the Albany Public Library’s Howe Branch in the South End, Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins and Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Alice Green discussed issues dividing police and community.
Hawkins went first, giving an update on police policies and procedures as they’ve evolved under his leadership. He says a small number of individuals are responsible for a big chunk of local crime. He says police have been identifying suspects and their associates. "What we're finding is that people who are closely associated with individuals who are committing violence in the community are highly susceptible and at high risk of committing crimes themselves, or, or becoming victims of crimes."
Those words unsettled the audience. Some raised concerns about "predictive policing" when Hawkins said officers would offer voluntary civilian-run anti-violence services to those precisely-targeted individuals who may be in the circle of an identified criminal. Hawkins added the individuals have the right to refuse those services. Spirited discussion followed: one neighbor telling Hawkins "so, in the black community, we are arrested more, and all of us probably know somebody who is a criminal, so by your definition, if we associate with a criminal, than everybody in the whole community is at high risk of either being harmed or being a criminal." (Hawkins / audience members) "This philosophy transcends race it doesn't matter who / it doesn't / it doesn't matter who did it, it doesn't matter who the person is / no, it doesn't, not in Pine Hills / ..."
When she took the podium, Green didn't mince words, noting black and brown people have long been victimized by systemic racism, and demonized as lawless. She believes many of today's problems are rooted in slavery. "And this is not an attack on the police department, I'm talking about systemic things, so if a police officer abuses you, that is an individual. But that individual might act in such a way, because of the culture within the police department, which says that black people need to be stereotyped. They're criminals."
Green went on talk about the Center's report "Pathway to Reformative Change: Public Safety, Law Enforcement and the Albany Community" and she reiterated her resolution to keep that survey a "living document" in the public eye. Its major finding: the community is very mistrustful of the Albany Police Department and the Albany County District Attorney.
The discussion highlighted something that has been oft-noted by Green: a communication breakdown among police, community members and city officials. Green contends some police reports and findings are publicly available, but the public isn't aware of them and doesn't know where or how to access them. The Center's survey became another example: audience members said had they known about the survey they would have participated. All sides said they'd take steps to better publicize essential information going forward.
Both Green and Hawkins felt the 90-minute session was productive. Green said "It was good that we had an opportunity to talk about the report that we did on public safety, and to have the chief here. I think also it's important for people to understand the importance of looking at systemic racism, in the police department, 'cause that's something that we don't wanna talk about, but it's important because it's there."
Hawkins said "We're not gonna solve all the problems. We're not gonna solve the generations of distrust that we've seen, you know, in law enforcement across the country, overnight. But we can slowly and methodically start to do some things to address it. I see this meeting as one way of addressing it. It's good that these meetings get a little emotional because these are emotional issues."