Nineteen new police recruits were sworn in Thursday at Albany city hall. It’s an interesting time in the city, with a new police chief and continued stress between the police union and the mayor. Things may be improving.
In mid-July, the Albany Police Officers Union published a scathing post on Facebook that took aim at Mayor Kathy Sheehan, saying the police department is understaffed and underfunded. The post contended that equipment issued to officers was outdated and in some cases didn't work. The post was eventually deleted but the incident left both sides bruised. Soon after, Sheehan appointed a new chief: Eric Hawkins, who held the same position Southfield, Michigan. In an interview earlier this month, he told WAMC: "Before I came here I talked to a retired command officer from Albany PD and I asked this person, 'is the Albany Police Department ready for an outsider?' And before I could even finish that last word, the answer was ‘no.’ Resounding no. And, I asked why and you know this person he talked about the culture of the place and some recent things that have happened within the police deaprtment and kind of gave me a warning that, you know, 'you may be walking into a hornet's nest kinda deal.' And so, as I walked in, it was nothing like that."
Albany Police Officers Union President Dave Verrelli says "things in general" have improved. "I would definitely say that the relations with the chief have been so far, quite positive. He is a well-spoken, articulate and sympathetic individual who actually listens to the problem or situation that you put in front of him. And there's a feeling that as he listens and when you leave the room that this is an individual who actually cares about whatever situation you brought to him, either big or small."
Verrelli says Hawkins has an open ear and an open mind. But when it comes to dealing with City Hall and the mayor, a rift remains over wages. "The Union representatives and negotiators have reached out to the city attorney and have received no word as of today, still, not even a date, to have that first sit-down meeting, which we are extremely disappointed, to say the least."
Sheehan, speaking to reporters Thursday, says her office is ready and willing to work with "all of our workforce." "I have an open door policy, and that has never changed. We have been successful in getting the first long-term contract that anybody can remember with our firefighters union, so I hope that that signals to the members of our other unions that this is an administration that wants to work with our employees, it values our employees and wants to ensure that they have the tools that they need to succeed."
Verrelli says the plan going forward involves more interaction with the media in hopes it will turn up the pressure on the mayor to take action when it comes to the union's concerns. "The mayor has no problem giving 5 percent raises across the board to the upper command level. And she clearly puts it in the budget. So yet she finds money somewhere, but unfortunately I believe it's through cuts of the rank and file."
Another part of the equation is community relations. Hawkins says daylight remains between his department and the community following an August police shooting that paralyzed 19-year-old Ellazar Williams. This week Hawkins and community leader Alice Green engaged in a dialogue with the public and the Common Council. "There's still a lot of people in the community that don't understand, and there's some officers on my department who may not quite understand our community. So my challenge now is to help bring these two sides together."
Green, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, says there's a lot of anger in the community, and she believes the department hasn't adequately addressed concerns she raised over the police report that called the Williams shooting justified, with police maintaining Williams ran from officers after a fight. "The department has not really dealt with a lot of the contradictions in the report. I'm concerned about that and I'm also concerned, I wanted to make sure and I think the chief does as well, want to make sure that the community continues to work very closely with the department to improve the relationship with the police."
She says Hawkins came in at a difficult time because the shooting incident had already happened, and the community continues to question why he would endorse the official police report. Green is optimistic that police-community relations will improve over time. "When an incident like this happens, I think the community wants to know the full story and to make sure that the truth comes out and that the whole report is believable. That's what we have to overcome."