Albany Law Forum: Police And Community Relations

Sep 17, 2015

Efforts to curb gun violence in Albany had another airing at an Albany Law School forum Wednesday night.

With headline-grabbing gun deaths during the past decade — the 10-year-old girl struck by a stray bullet fired form a "community gun," the UAlbany student who took the New York City police exam the day before he was killed near Washington Park in 2008 — still front of mind, many local activists believe there has been no progress either on the community or police level when it comes to addressing gun violence.

But statistics reveal the crime rate in Albany is on a downward spiral.  Officials point to year-to-date figures showing violent crime is down 2 percent and the overall crime rate down 14.1 percent.

To some, incidents of gun violence are a call to action, sparking gatherings:  vigils and forums one activist likens to “scabs forming over cuts,” but for many, the scars never heal and community relations remain strained.

Wednesday evening, Albany Law School hosted a panel discussion regarding police relations with minorities and young adults.

Second-year law student and organizer Briana Vaughn: "We wanted to have a community forum that would focus on police relations with minorities and young adults, and how to bridge the gap between the two, being that police brutality is such a hot topic issue in today's society. We felt, as up and coming lawyers, we should speak on the issue."

A major question is what role video should play. In the wake of Ferguson, there've been calls to outfit cops with body cameras. Closer to home, last November, a Saratoga County sheriff’s deputy was suspended after an incident with a motorist involving foul language and physical contact was posted online and attracted national media attention. Last week in Albany, an officer who challenged the presence of a street musician found himself on the wrong end of the lens, documented citing laws against performances that don't exist and telling the performer his shirt was blocking pedestrian traffic on a 25-foot wide chunk of downtown sidewalk.

Law student Adriana De León says dialogue and discussion make a difference, and the conversation needs to continue.  "What's going on in the news with police brutality, it makes us have no hope. I am 34 years old. This is my second career. I have a bachelor's degree, I have a bachelor's degree, I have a master's degree and I'm going for my law degree, and still I get scared. What happened to Sandra Bland in Texas, is that going to happen to me? These are things that I think about every day when I walk outside. And therefore, I think we need to have the conversation. Maybe there is police reform that's going on in Albany Police Department, or back in New York City where I'm from. If these things are happening, then I think that it's the obligation of the community to question the police, to find out, are we any safer today than we were yesterday?"

Patrick Lynch, President of the NYPD Union, emailed a statement to reporters this week in which he wrote "no one should ever jump to an uniformed conclusion based on a few seconds of video."

No cameras were rolling in Saratoga Springs on Labor Day weekend in 2013 when Darryl Mount, Jr. died after being chased by police on a complaint he had pushed his girlfriend. Mount was fatally injured when he feel through scaffolding during the footchase.

And there was only darkness in Albany the chilly April night Donald “Dontay” Ivy  was stopped by officers in his Arbor Hill neighborhood. The encounter that resulted in a fatal tasing that still has the community on edge as the district attorney and the executive branch trade blame for an unfinished investigation.

District Attorney David Soares has been urged by activists to take  stand, but says Governor Andrew Cuomo's July executive order giving the state attorney general powers above those of local D.A.'s in civilian police shooting cases has stalled the case, which the administration disputes.

Albany County Assistant District Attorney Jasper Mills spoke at the Albany Law School forum: activist attorney Mark Mishler offers his take on that:   "There were some particularly sharp disagreements around, for example, the issue of whether there's an inherent conflict of interest in having an elected county district attorney be in charge of a potential prosecution of a police officer in a police killing of a civilian.

All of these events are sending us on a journey of discussion, debate and interaction. We still may not be agreeing with one another when it comes to social ideals and justices, but we're making the effort, that's what counts.  Two sides of that issue were addressed. In my opinion, the representative of the Albany County district attorney's office essentially, despite what he was trying to say, made the case as to why their has to be a special prosecutor in such situations, because he talked about the role that police play and the connection between police and the D.A.'s and the friendships that exist between police officers and distrcit attorneys. He was trying to make an argument that D.A.'s offices can be fair and impartial. But in fact, he made the opposite argument."

Mishler hopes events like the forum will foster understanding, inspiring citizens and the law students who participated. "We have to make a choice as individuals, to the extent that we can, whether we're gonna play a role of perpetuating a system that is structured and based on racism, or whether we're gonna play a role of trying to dismantle that kind of a system. Those are choices. And it's not acceptable, whether you're a defense lawyer, a prosecutor or a police officer, to simply sort of sit back and say, 'Well I didn't create this problem. I'm just doing my job.’  We all have a responsibility to take action, to make our society better."

YOU can be part of the discussion!

Leave your comments below...

or on the WAMC listener comment line at 800-695-9170.