Log In Registration

Back on the Beat

by Jason Chura on July 28, 2011 · 2 comments

Photos by Juila Zave

They tell stories of bullet holes in window glass, fighting, stabbings, shootings, armed robbery, riotous late night gatherings, casual drug sales on quiet corners, implied violence. Crimes and scenarios that have become common in some Albany neighborhoods.

There is anger and outrage in the crowd at the June 14 meeting between representatives of the Albany Police Department and the community at the Albany Civic Theater on Second Avenue. The meeting deteriorates at times to bickering. Each of the citizens who addresses the stage speaks to a common message: “We shouldn’t have to live like this.”

The meeting is in support of the Albany Police Department’s renewed community policing effort and was called by the department to allow the public a chance to speak candidly to the police about the issues in their neighborhoods. It is the first forum since the recommendations of the Albany Community Police Advisory Committee were enacted. Slightly more than 50 people are in attendance, including several Albany Common Council members, Albany County legislators, and other city officials. Mostly, the crowd is made up of folks from around the neighborhood.

A large prop tree trunk looms stage right from the theater’s just-ended production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In front of a blank purple wall and a small section of fencing, members of the Albany Police Department’s command staff respond to the audience’s concerns. Flanked by Deputy Chief Stephen Reilly and Assistant Chief Brendan Cox, Chief Steven Krokoff leans forward, listening intently. His posture is relaxed and open. He’s read every e-mail and letter brought up by the crowd. He already knows of many of their concerns. He nods along to each testimonial as though he already knew the speaker’s issue.

Throughout the evening, Krokoff maintains his light, thoughtful manner. He is funny, animated, at times maybe a little wonky; but as he responds to each member of the audience, it is evident that the he shares in their frustration with the state of their city.

In short, Chief Krokoff gets it.

Krokoff equates the department’s new focus on community policing to a religion.

“It’s what our beliefs are grounded in,” he says. “We as a police department recognize that we need our core values to be in line with the community; we need to learn what their expectations are of us.”

It is this philosophy that has driven the department into new partnerships with the communities it serves, and that has put the command staff before the public on this warm pre-summer evening.

The mood is positive and, for the first time in a long time, the community is engaged in a truly open dialogue with its police department, hopeful that the department is actually listening.

The APD has flirted with community policing in the past with varying degrees of immersion and success. The efforts had harsh, militaristic names like “Operation: Impact” and the “Strategic Deployment Unit.” Typically, they involved the deployment of a unit of beat cops into a handful of neighborhoods. They resulted in some success; however, without the full support of the department, beat cops were able to accomplish only so much.

Recently, the department has gone through a period of intensely data-driven policing where the department’s resources were directed to the areas with a higher incidence of crimes. Beat cops were pulled off the street during this initiative, much to the dismay of the public, according to Assistant Chief Cox, head of the APD patrol division and liaison to ACPAC. Crime rates did decrease under the department’s data-driven approach, specifically violent and property crimes.

“We really didn’t have community buy-in,” says Krokoff. “We felt that people really didn’t have faith in the police department. There was a noticeable fear of crime, even when our incidence of crime, our numbers, were going down year after year. People seemed to be more concerned and had a general feeling that crime was on the rise. People were more disconnected from the police department, people feel less safe, they feel like no one is really watching out for them, and those fears begin to develop.”

Experts frequently question the validity of crime statistics, raising the argument that a decrease in crime rates can be explained by a decrease in reported incidents, and not and actual reduction in crime.

Traditional police work is just patchwork, according to Cox. It addresses the crime itself, but does little to address the cause. Therefore, officers may respond to calls all night without every actually solving any problems. Community policing addresses the crime, but it also addresses the factors behind it, using the people of the neighborhood as a resource for information and solutions.

“When we did this reiteration of community policing, one of the things that we’ve kept in mind is that we need to pay attention to the data,” says Cox. “We still need to review what’s happening and do the appropriate planning by crime patterns, but we still need to be able to listen to the public and let the public tell us what they’re seeing.”

Under Krokoff’s direction, the Albany Community Police Advisory Committee and an internal review board were created with the purpose of discovering how the APD could best enact the changes necessary to reconnect with the community it serves. ACPAC members were nominated and selected by members of the Albany Common Council.

Karen Johnson was one such person. A social worker by trade, Johnson advocated to be included in ACPAC and was nominated by Anton Konev (Ward 11). Johnson had several prior experiences dealing with the APD, some better than others.

“I felt strongly that many of the negative experiences could have been mitigated by having a stronger bond and a stronger connection between the police and the citizen,” says Johnson.

According to Johnson, in the initial meetings of ACPAC it was decided that the community should be consulted early in the process. Three community forums were held, and from those forums ACPAC created a list of recommendations to guide the APD’s development on the program.

“Each neighborhood just wanted to have a stronger bond, a stronger connection, a stronger understanding so that they police weren’t just an occupying force, but to really have them see themselves as a part of the community and to have the community see the police as a part of the community,” says Johnson.

The public called for more training for officers to help them use discretion and to deal with competency and mental-health issues, continued support of neighborhood watch programs, increased accountability and transparency, as well as a host of neighborhood specific issues, according to Johnson.

Using the feedback from the public as well as from its internal committee, the APD created the Neighborhood Engagement Unit. The unit, according to Assistant Chief Cox, is composed of 27 beat officers, 4 community service officers, 3 school resource officers and 3 sergeants, and is supervised by Lieutenant Michael Tremblay. The unit serves as the primary point of contact between the department and the community.

The department claims this push for community policing is unlike past efforts. This time, the department is aiming for nothing short of a total paradigm shift; its goal is for all 500 persons on staff, both sworn and unsworn, to wholly embrace the tenets of the APD’s initiative, according to Cox and Krokoff. The department must adhere to joint problem solving on a systemic level if the strategy is to succeed.

Throughout the process, the APD sought feedback from ACPAC and the community and in the process, developed open channels of communication necessary for the community policing process to work.

“We’ve had to make sure we took purposeful steps so that we didn’t just do something only to have to undo it to correct it,” says Cox. “If there’s been a challenge it’s been keeping ourselves in check and slowing down when appropriate before taking the next step. Keeping ourselves in check and not taking a misstep.”

The deliberate pace was frustrating to both sides of the program, according to Cox and Johnson, but so far their care seems to have paid off.

”I’ve grown up in Albany. I’ve been in Albany for almost 50 years and I’ve seen the bad part of the police department and I’ve always cried about the way they treated us, but now I feel great,” says Willie White, director of A Village in South Albany, civilian member of the Neighborhood Engagement Unit, and ACPAC member. “I feel really, really good on the inside the way the police are responding, the way they’re reaching out to you and the way they’re interacting with you.”

Every one of Officer Mike Fiorino‘s work days begins with his e-mail. From the reports and incidents that have occurred since he last worked, Fiorino creates his shift. Then, clad in the blue and black of the APD’s bike uniform, he pedals up the hill. It’s about a mile from South Station to his beat on Delaware Avenue; an uphill trek that he’s embarked on many times since getting transferred into the zone as one of the Neighborhood Engagement Unit’s beat cops.

Much of Officer Fiorino’s six-year career in the APD has been spent in and out of one form of beat walking or another, from Operation: Impact, to the Strategic Deployment Unit, to the Neighborhood Engagement Unit.

Early on, Officer Fiorino found a street-level approach to the job to be most effective.

“You get more with honey than you do with vinegar,” says Officer Fiorino. “When you’re interacting with people one on one, when you don’t have that barrier between the car and you, you can get a lot more done, you can meet a lot more people, you can learn a lot more of what’s going on.”

Officer Fiorino’s first brush with what he considers to be community policing came when he was assigned to Park South. While following up on a complaint, he found a flyer for a Park South Neighborhood Association meeting. After asking permission, Fiorino attended from then on.

At first, Fiorino was received as “just another one passing through here: You’ll be in and you’ll be out.” With time however, he began to gain the community’s trust.

“I started to get to know people over there, and when I started to get to know people, I started learning all of the problems, and I was taking care of them one by one,” says Fiorino. “A lot of it was interacting with the people on the streets, because it’s the people that are afraid of all this stuff that are the people that will pull you aside and tell you what’s going on.”

“If you really look at it,” says Willie White, “the African-American community really dominates the jailhouses and the court system, and of course there’s some work to be done on the justice system itself, but if we’re going to be involved in that, and the jailhouses, and the court system, then we need to know and have a relationship with the police department. If my son or daughter goes to jail, I want to be able to go and talk to someone that I’m familiar with and get the story on the situation.”

Though an important part of monitoring major crimes, Albany’s beat cops are the department’s best line of defense on so-called quality-of-life issues: wall-shaking car stereos, obnoxious taxicab horns, unkempt properties, and general mischief. Incidents such as these often go unreported as they are often not actually criminal; they are just generally obnoxious and end up grating on neighbors if left unaddressed.

Most issues such as these can be solved with a quick conversation between the offender and a beat cop, according to the department. The APD has also adopted Facebook as a communication tool in order to easily communicate with the public about minor problems.

For widespread issues, the command staff may step in and take citywide action as in the recently augmented noise ordinance targeting car stereos, horns, and motorcycles.

Neighborhood Engagement officers are given carte blanche to approach the problems in their neighborhoods as they see fit, freeing them from the bureaucratic entanglements that typically plague police agencies.

“One of the main tenets of community policing is empowerment; not only of the community, but empowerment of the line officers,” says Krokoff. “Community policing cuts the bureaucracy out and empowers the officer on the beat. Bosses get in the way of these things. . . . We tend to be bottlenecked. The officers with boots on the ground, they know exactly how to get it done. They don’t need us getting in the way . . . and it works.

“I’m working right now to try to set up a neighborhood watch program on Delaware Ave.,” says Fiorino. “They already have one, but I’m trying to expand it more. I’m trying to recruit people. Right now it’s a group of about 10. I just scored my first success and got money from an outside agency to fund the program.”

The department has announced plans to open 18 regional offices around the city to house the Neighborhood Engagement Officers so that they can work closer to their respective beats. One such office, that of Second Ave.’s Neighborhood Engagement Officer Chris McCoy, was announced as finalized during the June community policing forum to a torrent of applause.

The department also sponsored a well-received citywide “Meet your Neighborhood Engagement Officer” event where citizens were encouraged to introduce themselves to their friendly neighborhood beat cop.

“Police work is an inherently negative job,” says Fiorino. “Nobody calls up the cops to say, ‘Hey I got an A on my test today.’ They don’t call up the cops to say anything good. We’re seeing people at their worst times, hands down. In this, you actually get to see people on their good side and you actually get to interact and relate with people. It gives you a good feeling, and it definitely gives them a good feeling because you’re their cop. You know them, they know you.”

Despite the community’s praise for the APD and the level of popularity the community policing program has achieved, everyone involved, Krokoff most of all, is quick to point out that the real work has just begun.

“Getting the beat officers out onto their beats and starting to change the mindset of the department; to be honest, it’s a low-hanging fruit,” says Krokoff. “I wish I could say, ‘Yeah, we did it,’ but we already did that once. We’re not making that mistake again. It was a miserable failure last time and it’s not going to be this time.”

Krokoff expects the program will be ever-growing and frequently enhanced as they develop their partnership with the community and open the doors to other entities as well.

Currently, the department is working out the logistics of assigning patrol cars to beats in hopes that the community will embrace those officers as teammates as they have with beat cops.
“If we could police this city with just people on foot and on bicycles, it would be great,” says Cox. “But that’s not reality. We still need officers that are in cars that can handle calls for service and can go from one place to another in quick and efficient fashion. The first step to that is to get them assigned to a given area, day in and day out.”

The APD also plans to unveil new services for members of the community as it pairs with new and different agencies. Using the beat cops’ local offices, the department plans to bring various councilors and aides directly to the community as part of a more holistic approach to crime management.

“Whether that be a crime victims’ advocate being there to help people recover items, make sure they get back what falls within their rights to get back, having a domestic-violence advocate there so that people who are victims of domestic violence don’t have to take three buses to get to the agency that helps them, we bring the agency that helps them right to their doorstep,” says Cox.

“We recognize that everybody’s got something to give in this, so we decided it was time to make sure that we open up the doors to everybody that was willing to lend a hand,” says Krokoff. “There are things that a lot of these community-based groups can do that we just can’t. Whether its logistics, financial, or credibility, there are certain things that they can do that we cannot. There are things that we can do that they cannot. It’s a perfect partnership.”

The APD would also like to have a presence in the community that is not directly related to law enforcement, where officers can interact as members of the community instead of as its servants.

“I’d like to see more events with the police, not just forums,” says White. “Sporting events, some kind of activity where we can interact together without the uniforms, in sweat pants and a T-shirt.”

On the community’s part, there has been a call for the Neighborhood Engagement Unit to make it a point to increase its positive interaction with the city’s youth. Many at the June Community Policing forum spoke to the importance of the police engaging kids before they become criminals.

Chief Krokoff’s vision of an APD 100-percent invested in community policing philosophy does not paint a picture of a world without crime. Instead, it is a scenario where there is some measure of harmony between the police and the public through the practical use of the independent agencies and services already in play.

“I envision the police department as being that catalyst bringing all those service providers together,” says Krokoff. “We’re almost always the first responder in every situation, so the officers will have the ability to recognize in almost any situation to start being able to access whatever could be the underlying issues and start connecting those people with those services.”

Krokoff’s ideal neighborhoods have functioning neighborhood associations with active and engaged members and open lines of communication to and from the police department.

And in Krokoff’s endgame, “Our entire police department is at the point where there’s no such thing as saying I can’t do something for you ma’am or sir because there is not a situation that exists where the police department can’t do something, even if it’s just a referral to another agency or getting someone else involved. There is no such thing as ‘We can’t help you.’ That’s what I would like to see, because once we get to that point, we reduce crime through more of a public-health model as opposed to just locking people up. I’m pretty sure the one thing we’ve demonstrated is locking people up does not prevent crime.”

As the community-policing forum ends, the crowd moves in two directions: many file out toward the back of the theater, eager to inhale the refreshments provided by the theater or just the fresh spring air, while the rest push forward to speak to the members of ACPAC, the Neighborhood Engagement Unit’s representatives, or the command staff.

The command staff and ACPAC seem pleased with the results of the forum. The information they gathered was valuable, as they expected. Some areas are better off than others. Officer Chris McCoy apparently has a lot of work to do.

Not everyone gets it, not yet. While most were in the spirit of the event, it’s clear that some came here tonight hoping for swift blue justice.

Community policing is the long game, especially in the neighborhoods that are the most estranged from the department. Its results are not quantitatively measurable.

“There’s no way to gauge community policing, per se,” says Fiorino. “There’s not a number that you can come back with to say hey community policing is working because our numbers are like this. Its more, how many people know you? When you come down the street, do people recognize who you are?”

“It’s a slow process, and its going to take a lot of work, and you can’t just change it overnight,” White says. “I told Chief Krokoff: It’s not you guys that have to do all the changing. The community has to change as well. The mindset, that us-against-them thing, is not going to work. It’s got to be us, period.”

Photos by Juila Zave