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Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins On Gun Violence, "Broken Windows," And Community Trust

Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins speaking Wednesday afternoon at the corner of First and Quail Streets
Lucas Willard
/
WAMC
Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins speaking Wednesday afternoon at the corner of First and Quail Streets

Halfway through 2021, the city of Albany has recorded nine shooting deaths, including some in broad daylight — leading officials to plead repeatedly for an end to gun violence. New York State Police and county sheriff’s deputies have been deployed to assist city officers on fears of a bloody summer.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan, a Democrat running for a third term, has pointed to the difficulty of conducting community outreach during the pandemic and the proliferation of illegal guns as contributing factors. Police Chief Eric Hawkins says he agrees with that assessment. Hawkins spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus.

In your view, why is this happening?

For the same reasons that we're seeing similar violence in urban centers across the country. Right now something is happening, there's some social forces that are that are occurring in our urban centers. And, you know, it revolves around the things that we typically talk about, you know, mental health, substance abuse, you know, lack of mentors and dysfunctional family structures, lack of educational opportunities, all of these social factors are just coming to a head in a lot of our urban centers.

And we're seeing this across the country. In our city it's just like, in other places: there are a very small percentage of individuals who are involved in the extreme violence that we're seeing. And our major focus right now is identifying those individuals and taking those individuals off the street. And we're doing a very, very good job of doing that, you know. In most of our recent homicides, we either have people in custody, or we have a very, very good idea of who's involved and will soon be bringing some people into custody.

You say it's a small number of people who are causing the chaos. How big is that number? How many people are we actually talking about?

Well, I don't know if we have an exact number. But I would say that, you know, there's a couple of dozen people that are typically on our radar at any given time. And you take those couple of dozen people, and you look at their associates. And in it, the circle goes out a little bit more. But in terms of a core group of individuals who are involved in terms in relation to the population size, it's a very, very small percentage. You know, not everybody in the community is engaged in violence. But you have this small number of individuals who are doing so. And it’s something that that gets the attention of a community, and rightfully so, because any act of violence is one at the violence too much. But we've got a great group of detectives, we've got a great group of officers, and there's a very engaged community. You know, every day, I'm getting calls from stakeholders in the community, whether it's elected officials or community activists or neighborhood association leaders, and they're offering assistance, they know that this is not something that the police can do alone. And so we've got a real good support system in the city in order to address this.

Let me follow up on that. In the past at some points, you and other officials have said you weren't getting enough cooperation from people who might have witnessed a shooting, maybe they had information about a situation or a shooting, and they would be helpful to police but they weren't cooperating with your investigators. Is that still the case?

Occasionally. In some cases, it's because the some of the witnesses may have been involved somehow in whatever incident was occurring. Other cases they may be afraid of retribution and revenge from people who are engaged in this violence. So sometimes they're afraid. So we get. It's not unusual to get that sort of hesitancy from people sometimes to come forth with information about some of the violence. Because, you know, think about it, you know, if a person has information about a an extremely violent person who either took somebody's life or attempted to do so, sometimes the thought process is that if that person knows that I'm a part of giving information that they could themselves become a target. And so that's always something that we deal with in terms of trying to get information.

But, you know, we work around it. But I think right now, the cooperation that we're getting from the community as a whole has been great. We've got individuals who are coming forward, like I said, and letting us know that they're here to assist in any way they can, thinking about ways of engaging with other parts of the community. Just this morning, I received a call from an elected official who wanted me to meet with an activist within our community to talk about not necessarily the violence but the police response to the violence. So conversations are being held. We're extremely engaged as a community. And you know, that's one positive as we move forward dealing with some of this violence.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan has pointed to the proliferation of illegal guns on the street. Do you agree with that assessment? How much of the problem comes down to people getting their hands on weapons that they shouldn't have?

I think is a huge problem. You know, there, there are so many guns on our streets right now. And the bigger problem, though, is the willingness of people to use those guns in order to resolve conflicts. So you've got that mix, that very combustible mix of the supply of weapons on the street being so readily available, and individuals who are willing to use them in order to resolve these conflicts. We’re seeing it here. A quick Google search, anybody can see that this is something that urban centers across the country are facing, and we started to see this sometime around this time last year. And it's continuing.

But as I’ve been saying before, you know, it's very, very important that we address this problem in a way that does not cause further harm and further trauma to some of these communities that are dealing with our violence. And in many cases, some of these communities are minority communities. And we've just gone through a reform movement, not just in Albany, but across the country, where we've had to listen to our community members, particularly our members of our minority community, tell us about their frustration and anger and concern about how they're being policed.

So the instinct when we're seeing things like this like upticks in violence, is to take this hardcore approach and say, you know, we're just going to flood our communities with  cops, we're going to stop everything that moves, you know, adapt this broken windows theory. Some of these tactics that we talked about, you know, 15 or 20 years ago. I mean, the instinct is to say, let's do that, and, and have some short term gains. But I think the challenge with that type of strategy in addressing these issues is that we may, in fact, get some short term gains, but it may resolve into some long term harm and long term trauma that will take us another five or 10 years to unravel. And so the clear message is that we have to take bad guys and bad people off the street. That's non-negotiable. And we've got to find out who has the guns, we've got to find out who's who's terrorizing our communities, we got to find out who the predators are in our communities, and we got to get those folks off the street. But while we're doing that, we've got to be careful that as law enforcement agencies that we're not causing or contributing to trauma and harm that already exists in these communities, particularly these minority communities.

I'd like to follow up on something you just mentioned, Chief. You referred to broken windows policing. A couple of Fridays ago after the daytime drive-by shooting and a second shooting on Central a couple hours later, you announced a stepped up coordination with the county sheriff, the state police, the U.S. Attorney, as a response. County Sheriff Craig Apple said the other day that broken windows would be the place that he would start to address this latest spate of violence. Are you two on the same page? What's the state of that coordination?

No, we're absolutely on the same page. Sheriff Apple has been a great partner with us. And as well as the individuals in the state police. And I mean, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with a broken windows theory or any other policing strategy in our communities. But what we've learned through the reform collaborative that that we've all been through over this last year, and even before that, over the last five or 10 years, what we've learned is that when we're instituting and implementing these strategies in these communities. And again, I'm going to go back to this because this is where a lot of the violence is happening, and it's in our minority communities, when we're implementing these strategies it’s very, very important that the people in those communities who will be impacted by those strategies are number one aware of what's happening. And number two, they have some sort of voice and some sort of input on how they're policed.

And so I don't fundamentally have a problem… Sheriff Apple and I are completely in line with this, you know, we don't have problem with certain policing strategies, but we're, we're both also 100% in line with the understanding that any strategies that we implement in these communities have got to be in conjunction with the people who are being policed.

And if we don't, what we've learned in law enforcement over my 30 years in law enforcement, is that when we simply impose a policing strategy into an into a community, without that community's awareness, and without that community having a voice, we’ll absolutely get some short term gains. But they often result in long term harm, long term trauma and long term destruction of relationships between the police and the community: relationships that take years and years to build, years and years and years to gain this trust and gain this legitimacy. And within one summer, we can implement some strategies that were not implemented in the appropriate way. And it can destroy all of those gains that were made. And so Sheriff Apple and I and Major West, from the state police and others who are working with us, we all understand that it's a tricky balance, because we're all frustrated, and the community is frustrated with what's happening. But we've got to make sure that when we're implementing these strategies, that we're not causing further harm and further trauma, and that we're not destroying some of these build bridges that were built.

Last thing, Chief. What's your assessment of where we are right now? Are you optimistic that the city has come through the worst of this spate of gun violence? Or how concerned are you about what lies ahead in the coming weeks and months?

Well, I'm very concerned in this in the sense that there's always a possibility that we could have some loss of life. And that prospect is something that that concerns me and concerns others in this community a great deal. I'm optimistic in the sense that we have some great partnerships, both in law enforcement in in the community and with our elected officials, to resolve it. But, you know, these sorts of issues typically don't just happen overnight, you know, this is usually the combination of a number of issues, number social factors that have just because of opportunity that, you know, it happens. So we've got to be careful as a community, and we have to be careful as law enforcement officials, that we don't implement strategies that will give us this illusion that everything is fine, and that everything is OK. But it still leads to long term harm or doesn't address long term issues.

I want to be perfectly clear with folks in the community that we are 100% committed to taking these individuals off the street who are committing violence, individuals who were serving who were acting as predators in our community, traumatizing, harming this community, we're 100% committed to doing so we will do so we've done it over these last couple of weeks, taking the number of individuals off the street, sending a message, we've got all these partnerships.

So you know, so we're, as tough and hard on crime as anybody in this country, you know, are or will be. But we also have this awareness here, that while being tough on crime, and taking bad people off the street, we also have to be very cognizant of the impact that our strategies are having on the community as a whole, because somebody has to deal with the aftermath. And we want this aftermath to be that we builtsome more bridges, we strengthened relationships. We took bad people off the street, and we made the community feel safer. That's what we want the story to be in the aftermath. We don't want the story to be that, you know, we took some bad people off the street, but now we've got five or 10 years of rebuilding trust and legitimacy with members of our community because the strategies weren't implemented in a way that contemporary policing agencies do right now and understand that we have to do. So it's a balance. I'm optimistic that we're heading there. And, as I said, incredibly engaged community that get it and an incredibly engaged law enforcement system at federal, state and local levels. They get it as well.

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