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Crime Series: Albany Faces Persistent Challenges

By and large, American cities are far safer today than they were decades ago. But problems persist. In the first part of our weeklong series on urban crime, WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas surveys the landscape in Albany.

Statistics compiled by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services show that there have been 11 murders in the city of Albany since January 1st and all of them involve a firearm. In both 2013 and 2014 there were eight murders in the city and also in both years, five were by firearm.    "When do we stop having meetings and move forward to action?" 

Third ward common council member Ron Bailey is troubled by another in a series of episodes of gun violence that regularly occur in New York's capital city. There have been many shootings  over the last decade.  Try as they may, politicians, police, clergymen, government officials and community activists have been unable to stem the tide of gun violence in a city with 25 percent poverty.

But it's always the same formula: a shooting is followed by memorials, tributes, candlelight vigils and community outrage. There's a forum or two. Then interest subsides.    "It took me back to the time when Kathina Thomas had been shot. And the city was in outrage and everybody came together..."

Credit findagrave.com

Thomas was a fourth grader, killed outside her home by a 15-year old Albany High School student in 2008.  The city has no shortage of sincere anti-gun advocates, among them powerful leaders like District Attorney David Soares, activist Marlon Anderson and gun-buyback promoter Pastor Charlie Muller. They often take separate paths when it comes to offering solutions.

Back in '08, Muller painted a gloomy picture of Albany street life.   "Enough is enough, you know. We actually, in the last year, probably had about five shootings right around our corner. And in the last seven years, three or four people have died from gun violence right in our area."

Albany's newly-appointed police chief Brendan Cox says building relationships with the community is a priority.   "...and really be able to solve the larger problems that we face. And we need to be able to do that together. There are a lot of social issues that are out there that sometimes get left on the doorstep of law enforcement, because we're the ones that are out there, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year."

In October, 2008, University at Albany senior Richard Bailey was shot dead by a teenager riding a bicycle just a few blocks west of Victory Christian Church. Again, the community was outraged and people came together. In 2014, across the street from Muller's church, a woman was stabbed to death on a grey November afternoon by her own son. Nathaniel Lajes lived next-door:  "I was at the work when I got the news. My neighbor, Ms. Beverly, had died. I couldn't believe it. She was basically like a mom to the whole neighborhood."

Beverly Wyatt's death, like Thomas', Bailey's and many others, was followed by gatherings, speeches and promises. Albany Police often attribute shootings to intercity gang rivalry.  It's 2015, and little seems to have changed.  Although statistics say there will always be violence in a city of 100,000 people, each killing takes a psychological toll.

Observers note the group "SNUG," or GUNS spelled backward, hasn't been as effective in Albany as it has been in other communities. Unable to shake the "SNUG" acronym, despite a name change, the group has struggled to find a voice. It has held sparsely-attended vigils at locations where people have been shot. Perhaps reflecting the lack of a united front against gun violence in the city, the group is battles itself on Facebook with at least three different "SNUG Albany" and one "Albany Cure Violence" accounts.

Alice Green, another long-time activist, runs the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, one of the driving forces behind a new crime diversion program that could possibly prevent some of the violence by helping people who commit "low-level" street crime get counseling and assistance instead of incarceration.   "The research shows that this approach can reduce recidivism by 60 percent or more. So we're very excited about having it done in Albany. the other thing is we're working with roughly 1,400 young people this summer. Most of them are in the youth employment program, and we're teaching them about drugs, drug prevention type program, as well as teaching them what their rights are on the streets so that they'll have a better relationship with the police officers in our city.  The hope is that will cut down not only street crime, but build up the relationship between young people and the police. As a matter of fact, the city of Albany is having a community meeting on August 8th to talk about how to improve that relationship with the police.  When people have trust in the police, the belief is that crime will decrease."

According to the website "Neighborhood Scout," your chance of becoming a crime victim in Albany is 1 in 122. The site lists Albany's "Crime Index" at 8, which means it is safer than a mere 8 percent of all cities in the United States.

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Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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