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Who’s Policing the Police?

Defensiveness, frustration mark the ongoing public conversation on accountability at the APD

A caller to Mayor Jerry Jenning’s radio show asked him recently for “one incident in the last 18 months where an officer has really been held accountable.” The mayor responded that several officers “aren’t presently working” but that “it’s easy to take these incidents and generalize about a department. . . . I have a fine police department. Do we have issues like any other organization? You’re going to have issues. Are we going to deal with them? Yes. . . . So just be careful, and just be fair.” Jennings added, “We’ve also had a police officer lose his life in the line of duty trying to protect the citizens here. Some people seem to just dismiss that.”

In the chart on the following pages, we present a roundup of 15 incidents within the APD that have made headlines or caused citizen concern in the past 18 months. These incidents span a range of problems, and the response from within the department varies as well. Though APD spokesman Detective James Miller says that it’s the media’s fault that the public perceives a problem, ongoing discussions within community groups, local Web logs and government watchdog agencies may indicate that the public’s concern is justified.

“Secrecy has always been a problem with the [Albany Police] Department,” says Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice. “That’s not a problem with the media—that’s a problem with the police department.”

For some context, Metroland turned to Dr. Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has published 11 books on policing, criminal-justice history and policy, and civil liberties, the most recent of which is Police Accountability: The Role of Citizen Oversight. Walker maintains the resource Web site www.policeaccountability.org, and travels around the country helping cities set up police accountability systems.

So are Albany’s troubles unusual? Well, yes and no. Most cities have problems of one sort or another with police accountability, says Walker. “It’s the nature of policing. You have people with extraordinary powers, officers working by themselves, under high-stress conditions. There’s continually problems. It’s the nature of police work.”

On the other hand, he said, most cities of Albany’s size will show recurrent problems in just one of the categories that Albany has seen—excessive force, perhaps—and not the persistent variety of problems Albany is seeing. When Walker was presented with the list we compiled, he responded, “This sounds like you’ve got some problems with basic professional standards with officers.”

Still, Walker is very optimistic about the potential to reform police departments. He says that any department that doesn’t have someone internal assigned to “look at the patterns” from a risk-management perspective and continually improve the system is “behind the ball.” Additionally, his recommendation for oversight and accountability is something called a “police auditor”—an independent department within a city that audits police internal investigations for quality and does broader “policy audits.” An auditor may also produce public reports on controversial incidents to “sort out fact from fiction and rumors.”

Such auditors are now in place in 12 cities, from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho. Walker recommends auditors over civilian complaint review boards because the boards can address only individual complaints, rather than systemic issues, and may therefore scapegoat particular officers for what are really supervisory issues. Auditors can take a broader look, and as municipal employees, have access by law to information others can’t get.

“We say, instead of looking for rotten apples, let’s look for the rotten barrel,” says Walker. “If you have recurring problems, it’s because there’s a lack of supervision or a lack of good policies, or [the department doesn’t] learn from bad incidents.”

Aren’t the supposedly independent auditors still appointed by the mayor? Yes, says Walker. Mayors have to support the accountability process. “Ultimately, if you have a mayor who doesn’t care, no particular structure is going to work.”

The rotten-barrel analogy wasn’t meant to keep all individuals from facing accountability for their actions, notes Walker. Responding to the case of Officer Krikorian, who burned down a building in Green Island by driving drunk, he said, “That officer should have been fired. He committed a crime, didn’t he? Isn’t there a statute on that?” (No there isn’t, says APD spokesman James Miller.)

While many of the offending police officers have felt some repercussion for their activities—some say not enough—the most troubling aspect of the last 18 months may be found in the official responses to these activities. Metroland offers up the following account of recent police activities, along with the responses offered in their wake by the police and government officials, in the hope that readers may form their own answers to the question that has given these officials so much trouble: Should law-enforcement officers be held to the same standard as the public, or cut some slack due to the dangers they face each day?

 

Category:

Financial hanky-panky

Date

Sept. 26, 2003

What happened

Officer Jeffrey Metcalfe was arrested on charges that he stole $36,000 in overtime over multiple months. Metcalfe allegedly forged signatures of supervisors and worked fewer hours than he billed the department.

Official comment

“We’re policemen, we’re not accountants, we’re not mathematicians, we’re not financial officers. But as people rise and get into other positions they have to adapt and be able to handle those administrative duties. . . . This was a very unfortunate situation for that young officer and his family.” –former Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen (Times Union, Oct. 28, 2003).

Consequences

After one year paid leave, Metcalfe, who could have been charged with multiple counts of forgery and offering a false instrument for filing, was instead charged with one count of felony grand larceny. He accepted a deal in which he pleaded guilty to a single count of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, which would come with a six-month sentence and require him to pay $10,000 in restitution out of the $36,000 he stole from the city. Metcalfe resigned from the force. His sentencing was put off this Monday (May 2) at the request of District Attorney David Soares, who has no jurisdiction in the case, because Metcalfe indicated he is “in possession of information that may be of interest” to the DA’s office.

Category:


LYING

Date

Dec. 23, 2003

What happened

On the night Lt. John Finn was mortally wounded, police were called to Lark Street to break up a fight involving Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen and two men who had been harassing him and his companion. One of the harassers was injured. Nielsen’s name was conspicuously absent from the resulting arrest report, even though any use of force by an officer resulting in prisoner injury must be recorded. The report simply stated that the man “was involved in a street fight with unknown parties.”

Official comment

The omission of Nielsen’s role in the brawl on the official arrest report was never publicly addressed, as media attention was focused on the fatal shooting of Finn later that night.

Consequences

None.

Category:

Excessive force/ dangerous car chase

Date

Dec. 31, 2003

What happened

Officers pursued a car that fled a traffic stop on State Street and set up a blockade on Lark Street. When the driver gunned the car in reverse toward an officer, two officers opened fire, continuing to fire at the car as it fled the scene. A bystander, David Scaringe, was killed by a ricochet. Car chases are not supposed to be pursued when they would be likely to put bystanders in danger. Officers are supposed to fire their weapons only if they fear for their lives.

Official comment

“It would be preliminary and it would be wrong for me to say at this time that it was justified.” –Police Chief Robert Wolfgang (TU, Jan. 2, 2004). “I’m not going to say our policy is wrong, but if [Chief] Bob Wolfgang feels we should fine-tune it, then we will.”—Mayor Jerry Jennings, (TU, Jan. 3, 2004). “I don’t see any reason for them not to return to work.” –Mayor Jerry Jennings (TU, May 5, 2004) “It’s a tragedy and we’ve made something positive from it.” –Mayor Jerry Jennings (TU, Jan. 6, 2005).

Consequences

The officers were on paid leave during the entire investigation. A grand jury did not indict them. After a private settlement, they received in- service training and job counseling; they remain on job-related-illness leave. After a few more car-chase problems (see below), the car-chase policy was studied and then was made much stricter. Better radio communication was installed to allow supervisors to call off chases, and the use-of-deadly-force policy was also revised to be more stringent. The city settled a civil lawsuit with the Scaringe family for a record $1.3 million.

Category:

Obstruction of justice

Date

February 2004

What happened

The Citizen Police Review Board had to resort to threatening to seek a subpoena (which only the Common Council can give) before the APD gave the board copies of its policies on use of deadly force, strip searches, high-speed chases, and racial profiling.

Official comment

Commissioner John C. Nielsen claimed the delay was due to “communication problems.”

Consequences

Later in the year the review-board chair resigned in frustration, saying the board didn’t have enough power to do independent investigations. The board’s powers have not been expanded.

Category:

Obstruction of justice, possibly others

Date

2002-2005

What happened

As a supervisor in the detective office, former Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro encountered overtime abuse, lax recordkeeping and an underground practice of “atta boy” days—unofficial days off, all of which were costing city taxpayers a lot of money. His supporters say his reports pointing to possible fraud and corruption caused him to be bumped to a different command and then fired in January 2004, allegedly for participating in the distribution of a racist flyer. Supporters say he was targeted as a whistleblower, and that incriminating computer records were deleted before various departmental audits took place.

Official comment

“We’re just doing some internal movement that will hopefully be, in the long run, better for the department as well.”—then-Chief Robert Wolfgang (TU, Oct. 23, 2003). “[Wolfgang] also called the commander ‘insubordinate’ and described his first transfer out of the detective’s office as ‘for his good and the good of the Albany Police Department’ due to accusations that he was creating a ‘hostile work environment.’”—Metroland (March 11, 2004).

Consequences

Nothing happened to any of the other people known to have distributed the flyer. Officially, the practice of “atta boy” days has been ended without department officials fully acknowledging that it existed. D’Alessandro is suing the city for wrongful termination.

Category:

Financial hanky-panky

Date

2002-2004

What happened

Six percent of the APD’s expenditures from the seized-asset fund went to non-law-enforcement items, such as office decorations, automatic car-starters, and social functions. Also, former Commissioner John C. Nielsen took $240 in various installments from a department safe for “misc” purposes and provided no receipts or indication if the money was returned. They hired an “expert” from the state police in April 2004 to say everything was fine. A city-comptroller audit and then a federal DOJ release in January 2005 confirmed these inappropriate expenses.

Official comment

“I’ll stop doing it, but we still feel we’re right because it’s for the community,” Police Chief James Turley (TU, Jan. 25, 2005). “[State Police Investigator Anthony] Pascuito said those were allowed expenses, though some might be in ‘gray areas’” –Metroland (April 1, 2004).

Consequences

No individuals were charged with wrongdoing. The APD tightened its accounting and bookkeeping procedures and said it would bring its spending more closely in line with the rules.

Category:

Excessive force

Date

March 2004

What happened

SUNY Albany student Diego Jaramillo was allegedly severely beaten by three officers. Jaramillo and a group of friends were walking home through an alley on Hudson Street when they heard glass breaking and someone screaming “He’s got a knife.” Jaramillo ran when he saw a group running toward him. Officer James Olson found him under a porch and allegedly told him, “I’ll show you for running, grunt!” Olsen then allegedly jumped on Jaramillo’s back and began to beat him until Jaramillo lost consciousness. Officers Louis Aiossa and Melissa Ketzer allegedly joined in the beating. Jaramillo suffered a head injury, multiple fractures and lacerations, a deviated septum and a ruptured eardrum. Officers say Jaramillo ran and then attacked Olsen while he was being handcuffed.

Official comment

“The DA went forward with the case [against Jaramillo]. That speaks for itself.”–APD Spokesman Detective James Miller. (TU, April 2, 2004)

Consequences

Lawsuit still pending.

Category:

Crimes while off-duty

Date

May 7, 2004

What happened

An argument over a jukebox led to a brawl between a group of patrons and five or six off-duty Albany Police officers at Tommy’s Place, a bar on Albany Shaker Road.

Official comment

“None of the guys has been suspended but we have an administrative investigation going on,” –APD Spokesman Detective James Miller (TU, May 26, 2004).

Consequences

None that were made public.

Category:

Dangerous car chase

Date

May 17, 2004

What happened

Two cruisers chased a stolen car through the West Hill neighborhood mid-morning, following as it drove the wrong way up a one-way street. The stolen vehicle crashed into another car at North Lake, injuring the other driver.

Official comment

“Unless you’re a psychic, who knows what the next turn is?” Turley, (TU, May 20, 2004)

Consequences

In October 2004, the vehicle-pursuit policy was changed to make it more explicit that officers must “balance the risks associated with a pursuit against the risk of terminating a pursuit.”

Category:

Dangerous car chase

Date

Aug. 29, 2004

What happened

Eight police vehicles, including one unmarked car, pursued a stolen vehicle through the city and out to Thacher Park. No more than two cars are allowed in a pursuit, and they can’t be unmarked.

Official comment

“Despite the probe, police officials said they don’t intend to make any changes to their pursuit policy. . . . I’ve asked the chief to review it. And if he has to admonish or reprimand people in the department for their involvement, if it violated procedure, I’ve asked that it be done.” –Mayor Jerry Jennings (TU, Sept. 21, 2004).

Consequences

Internal investigation. Changes to pursuit policy were announced in October (see above)

Category:

Crimes while off-duty

Date

Oct. 6, 2004

What happened

According to State Police reports, officer Greg Krikorian had a blood alcohol content of 0.16 percent—twice the legal limit for driving—when he backed into a garage in his apartment complex and started a fire that engulfed the building and incinerated five garages and one apartment. No one was injured, but all the property in the apartment was destroyed. Before arriving home, Krikorian also swerved into a guardrail, bending several rail posts and puncturing his fuel tank (hence the fire), and may have hit a truck on Interstate 787.

Official comment

“Leave him alone, he’s a good kid. . . . You’re in Cohoes, so I don’t care what you think . . . The young man’s learned from it. That’s all we ask.” –Mayor Jerry Jennings, to a caller to the mayor’s WROW radio show, April 22, 2004. “You have lawyers, doctors, journalists who are arrested for DWI and don’t lose their jobs. I think it’s unfair for officers to be treated differently from everyone else. People make mistakes.” –APD Spokesman James Miller, May 4, 2005.

Consequences

State police charged Krikorian with driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident. He was arrested, without being handcuffed, and issued an appearance ticket. He pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of driving while ability impaired on Dec. 21. He was fined $300, and his license was suspended for 90 days. Krikorian was suspended during the criminal proceedings. When they were complete, he was reinstated.

Category:

Obstruction of justice

Date

Nov. 2, 2004

What happened

A bank robber, hopped up on a self-described crack-cocaine binge made possible by the money from his previous day’s robbery, was turned away by detectives at South Station on Arch Street when he tried to turn himself in.

Official comment

none

Consequences

Responsible officer was suspended for 30 days, which was then lowered to one week (see below).

Category:

LYING

Date

November 2004-March 2005

What happened

After meeting privately with officials from the police union, Albany Chief James Turley decided to reduce the suspension handed down to the officer who turned away a bank robbery suspect at South End station from 30 days to one week. This information was leaked to the local media, and union and police officials quickly initiated an investigation into the identity of the informant. The department’s investigation appeared to end with detectives identifying which computer was used to send the e-mail, but union officials went a step further, identifying the sender. Both Turley and District Attorney David Soares had refused to issue subpoenas to allow investigation of the sender’s personal e-mail account, and the union has not said how they traced the message. However, when the sender learned he had been identified, he wrote to Turley requesting an investigation into how and why his personal e-mail account had been compromised. When a member of the local media asked Turley about the message, he denied ever receiving it—only to admit that this was a lie when presented with proof of the message’s existence.

Official comment

“I lied. I apologize. If it costs me my job, so be it.” –Chief James Turley (TU March 7, 2005). “To the best of my knowledge, nothing was done illegally. . . . The chief basically encouraged us to do our own investigation.” –Chris Mesley, president of the Albany Police Officers Union (TU March 7, 2005). “I recognize the power and responsibility of my office and the need for integrity and credibility.” –Chief Turley (TU March 13, 2005).

Consequences

No investigation into the union’s methods was initiated, and there was no disciplinary action taken against Turley.

Category:

Excessive force

Date

April 7, 2005

What happened

A 14-year-old girl was punched in the face by an officer while police were attempting to break up a fight between Livingston Middle School students. The girl, whose cheekbone was fractured, was then arrested and brought to Albany Med for treatment. The officer said she was interfering with his attempt to break up the fight and kicked him in the groin.

Official comment

“An officer was assaulted. He acted appropriately as we see it right now. He has to defend himself as he’s being attacked whether it’s a 14-year-old or a 44-year-old.” –APD Spokesman Detective James Miller (Channel News 9, April 21, 2005). “I will hold my police officers accountable, and if something is done wrong, we’ll deal with it. . . . I think we should not be quick to jump until we know about this incident.” –Mayor Jerry Jennings, WROW radio show, April 22, 2005.

Consequences

Pending lawsuit against the officer. The victim will have to undergo surgery and has been out of school since April 7.

Category:

Crimes while off-duty

Date

April 22, 2005

What happened

After crashing his vehicle into a parked minivan with enough force to send the van into another parked car, Officer Robert Schunk was charged with driving while intoxicated. According to APD spokesman Detective James Miller, Schunk exhibited “slurred speech, glassy eyes” and “an odor of alcoholic beverages.” Schunk refused to take a breathalyzer test and was arrested.

Official comment

“That officer is no different from anybody else that would’ve been involved in another accident.” –APD Spokesman Detective James Miller. (WTEN, April 22, 2005) “This is very similar to a doctor, lawyer or teacher that would go out and drink and drive.” –Miller. (CN9 April 22, 2005).

Consequences

Schunk was suspended without pay for 30 days (a maximum based on union contracts) and pleaded not guilty on April 24. He returned to court May 2.


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