Top law enforcement officials in Albany County are discussing how policing and the criminal justice system will function in a post pandemic world.
Albany activist group A Block at a Time held a community meeting Thursday on Zoom with Albany City Police Chief Eric Hawkins, Albany County DA David Soares and Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.
The goal was to discuss what policing and criminal justice will look like once Albany reopens from the pandemic.
Soares is running for a fifth term and faces Matt Toporowski in June’s Democratic primary. He says the law enforcement community, in preparation for state criminal justice reforms, had built a digital platform to achieve certain goals. He says the platform decision was a timely one.
"The support staff, the investigators and everyone in the office rolled up their sleeves and digitized every shred of paper, so now we are living in a paperless environment. We're able to communicate with one another, through various technology, this is how I'm having my meetings with my staff every day of the week and I think this is how we're all interfacing in law enforcement."
Soares says the biggest challenge coming into reopening is convincing people it's safe to serve on juries and grand juries.
Sheriff Apple has a team devoted to keeping the courts safe.
"We've got a great partnership going right now with the district attorney where when they're done with their hearings we immediately go in and disinfect so the next witness or the next victim that comes in can have a sanitary space to testify in wothout fear of contracting the virus."
Apple says COVID-19 has "rocked his world."
"The only silver lining is that we have been preparing for literally years to use video arraignmentnd try to do more of a centalized booking type thing so we can keep cops on the road, not have to transport as much, and really try to save some tax dollars that way."
Apple says he has been distributing facemasks and getting word out that it’s important people wear them.
Chief Hawkins says the pandemic has impacted criminal activity.
"You know, we're down 8 to almost 9 percent overall year to date in terms of overall crime in our community. And then when you look at what's happened over the five year trending period, we're down almost double digits in just about every category. So we statistically, statistically, we're safer now than we were last year or the year before that or five years from now."
Hawkins concedes gun violence remains a problem with too many young people in the city carrying and concealing illegal weapons. Apple noted that law enforcement is seeing an uptick in calls related to mental health and domestic violence. Soares, Hawkins and Apple agree that adopting new methods of community engagement has been a learning process, one that will likely continue through the rest of the year.