Police Accountability Series Part Three: Cops Embrace Technology To Improve Community Relations

Dec 12, 2018

Police departments have been moving toward transparent community-oriented philosophies and practices, including embracing social media. In the latest installment of our series on police accountability, WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas reports on how area departments are using technology.

Accountability and transparency have come a long way since 1998, when Albany's Center For Law and Justice issued a  research report entitled “To Protect And Serve?”.

Alice Green, the executive director of the Center For Law and Justice.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Alice Green is executive director.   “I think it was something like only 29 percent of people in the city community, particularly in the African-American community, believed that the police was without any bias, so there was a real problem at that time, and historically there has been great difficulty getting the community and the police to work together. But I think since 2010 things have changed dramatically in terms of relationships between the Albany Police Department and the community. The Center itself was founded 30 years ago to address those relationships. We were very excited when the department got a new chief, Chief Krokoff, who was committed to community policing. It was a turning point because I think it affected the culture of the police department.”

New York's Capital Region, led by the city of Albany under Chief Steven Krokoff, began to have a significant impact on community-oriented policing, with several standards now being emulated by law enforcement agencies across the nation. In 2013, Albany was the only city in New York with a community policing program in place.   “Transparency of course has improved dramatically. At one point, we were not able to get any information from the Albany Police Department.”

By June 2015, Albany became the third U.S. city and first in the Northeast to adopt LEAD: the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, an innovative pre-booking diversion effort that empowers officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in criminal activity involving things like prostitution or drugs to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution.   “LEAD has led to significant changes in training police officers, not only in harm reduction methods, but procedural justice, how do you approach people in the community with respect and they’ve also been trained in implicit bias problem-solving techniques.”

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice named the APD one of 15 departments it would track in an effort to improve policing nationwide. The selection was made as part of President Obama's Task Force On 21st Century Policing, which in the previous year laid out recommendations and best practices for departments.

APD has also worked to improve community relations with several initiatives including "pop-up" barbecues, family movie nights, police and fire recruitment efforts, impromptu soccer or basketball games, and "Coffee With A Cop."

Albany Police spokesperson Steve Smith says the cookouts have been a big hit.  "They're a surprise barbecue that we post the day before an event where members of the Albany Police Department will cook hamburgers, hotdogs for members of the community. We'll show a movie, a kid-friendly movie on a large inflatable screen that we have, and the officers can engage our youth by playing soccer and games. Sometimes we've had some games like kickball and things like that, so it's just a really good opportunity to bring people together and build those meaningful relationships."

The city began rolling out officer body cameras in 2017, as Smith and other officers maintained an active social media presence that included Facebook, Twitter, and Nixle (an internet alert system activated in 2013). Crimestoppers, launched in December 2017, opened a fast-lane for police to receive tips anonymously from the public. Again, Green:   “Body cams of course add some dimension to the accountability issue. I know they’re moving in the direction of improving relationships through the use of social media, and also doing legal rights education with groups like the Center For Law And Justice.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan looks on as Police Chief Eric Hawkins addresses a crowd during the October 2018 swearing-in of 19 police recruits at City Hall.
Credit APD Steve Smith / facebook

Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins, who took over the 300-member force in September after a 30-year police career in Michigan, recently opened a Twitter account and has become an avid poster.  "My first foray into this social media type environment and I'm enjoying it so far."

In nearby Schenectady, Sergeant Matthew Dearing says his department is cognizant of the presence of social media, home security systems and people having cell phone cameras.    "We assume and we tell our officers to assume that they are being recorded at all times, by everyone."

Chief Hawkins notes technology and community policing go hand-in-hand. He says it's been a natural progression, with smartphones ubiquitous among Albany residents, and officers becoming comfortable with body cameras.  "Officers are starting to see now that, in particular, with citizens’ complaints and with assessing actions of officers after the fact that in most instances these recordings have exonerated officers and or they've shown to the public that some of the things that they may have heard about how officers behave or things they say or things they do are not necessarily true, and that these recordings have been a positive thing for our police officers and so now we're starting to see that the officers are really embracing the technologies now that are being introduced into our industry."

Hawkins adds that many new technologies serve as "behavior modifiers," which he says seem to bring out the best in both citizens and police officers — because everyone realizes they're being documented. 

AXON body cameras were selected for use by the Albany Police Department.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Sergeant Dearing says the leap in technology is also beginning to impact the Schenectady Police Department. The 154-member force is currently testing different brands of body cameras.    "So we are going to be getting them and they are going to be rolled out in the near future. We're just completing our pilot test phase as for which camera and which camera we're going to be using.  We do take a good look and review a lot of our policies, procedures and protocols very regularly to make sure that we are on the advancement side of things, to make sure that we are on the advancement side of things to make sure that we're not only keeping up with but trying to stay ahead of ever-changing policing times."

Dearing sees the changes in the way information is exchanged and disseminated as having a positive impact on law enforcement and transparency.    "Times have changed. You know you don't have to wait ‘til the 6 o'clock news to tell everybody that a road is going to be closed. You can send that message out on various social platforms now which is, you know, not only beneficial for a police department, but for everyone else as well."