In April, the early days of the pandemic, the Center for Law and Justice in Albany published a 15-page report on structural racism and public safety in the city. Among other things, the report called upon city leaders to acknowledge the existence of structural racism in the police department. A month later, there were nationwide protests over similar issues following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Executive Director Dr. Alice Green said the report served as a follow-up to the organization’s 2019 Albany Community Policing Survey, which she claimed was all but ignored by government officials.
"I think the issues that we raised are very difficult ones, racism, structural racism in particular, is very difficult for people to understand and to figure out how to deal with it. And I think trust is another issue. I think maybe law enforcement are deceiving themselves. But I think they believe, really do, that most people in the community trust them. And we found that people were saying, you know, the opposite.”
On May 26th, Floyd died after an officer was filmed kneeling on his neck for several minutes, several times repeating "I can't breathe." Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins spoke just days before a local protest following Floyd’s death turned the city upside down.
"...there are gonna be community members from Albany who are gonna see that video and see the incident and the circumstances out in Minneapolis and they're gonna feel a certain way. And it's important that we're aware that there may be an emotional reaction, not just nationwide but in our city."
Dozens of storefront windows were smashed. A truck was set on fire in the middle of South Pearl Street. Fireworks were hurled at mounted police horses, a CDTA bus driver had to be rescued after being pinned in her bus, and an officer was injured after being hit with a brick. A citywide curfew was imposed.
The city walked on eggshells as video of the June 2nd arrest of a young couple, posted on Facebook, threatened to escalate tensions. Activist Lukee Forbes of Albany co-organized a daytime march through uptown neighborhoods.
"The video that circulating showed where individual and his girlfriend were kidnapped by the police unjustifiably."
In June, as Mayor Kathy Sheehan signed an Executive Order directing the removal of a statue of former slave owner Major General Philip Schuyler from the front of City Hall, a Siena College poll found New Yorkers were indeed troubled by systemic racism and police behavior. At the same time, gun violence was riding a seasonal wave in Albany that would dramatically spike beyond anyone's expectations, skyrocketing up 300 percent.
Hawkins and Sheehan looked to the public for help.
"We're continuing to investigate these shootings and it's incredibly troubling."
Hawkins blamed the uptick in gun-related crime on the pandemic, as social distancing and other guidelines aimed at halting transmission of the coronavirus limited police-community programs and relations, which he felt may have given the impression of a diminished police presence.
In August, Albany held the first meeting of its Policing Reform and Reinvention Collaborative as part of an ongoing effort to “reimagine” policing in the city under a directive issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Meantime, Chief City Auditor Dorcey Applyrs announced Albany had picked Virginia-based consulting firm CNA to conduct a racial bias audit of the Albany Police Department.
“The CNA team will begin to collect and analyze data related to traffic stops, use of force, and other police officer-civilian interactions to determine the impact on Black residents."
In November, Hawkins began the process to terminate an Albany police officer for making several racist comments while on duty in bodycam video recorded by an Albany County Sheriff's Deputy.
CNA's final report came out in early December. Speaking with WAMC a day after the report was released, Hawkins said the report gave a lot of the "whats" in terms of a lot of data, but it didn't delve into the "why."
"I think there's value to it in that will prompt us to look at some of our strategies and enforcement actions and about how we're interacting with the community, but in terms of getting conclusive evidence of any bias, I think it's way too premature at this point to say that."
Meanwhile the Police Collaborative took some heat after WAMC reported that its working groups “collectively decided” to open "public input meetings" only to those providing comment. Sheehan tweeted that after hearing from the community, the Collaborative decided to livestream the meetings and make all comments public.
Hawkins is enthusiastic about a second program, independent of the collaborative: the “Time to Talk – Community and Cops Collaborating” program, or “T3C3,” sets aside time each month for officers and residents to privately discuss issues like systemic racism and gun violence, where residents will meet directly with patrol officers in their neighborhoods.
“Typically when we have these sorts of community-policing programs, we have either chiefs or command officers, or beat officers, or community-policing officers who are involved. Well, what we heard from our community is that they want to hear from other officers in a non-threatening, non-confrontational environment.”
Around the state, Collaborative reports on local police reforms are due by April.