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Could You Look Into This?

Local group asks the Citizen’s Police Review Board to investigate the Albany Police Department

Last Monday (June 13) the Coalition for Accountable Police and Government turned to the City of Albany Citizen’s Police Review Board, asking them to review several incidents regarding the Albany Police Department and determine whether or not there has been wrongdoing. The coalition, formed early in 2004 in response to the controversial suspension and subsequent dismissal of former APD Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro, has been working toward finding a means for citizens to effectively pursue their concerns about police accountability.

Among some of the topics the coalition raised with the board were violations of privacy rights, lying by the police chief, overtime abuse, details of the car chase that resulted in the death of David Scaringe, and abuses of the Drug Seizure and Forfeiture Fund [“Who’s Policing the Police?” May 5].

“We are concerned that this potential pattern of deception is endemic to the administration and prevalent in the culture of the APD,” said Bill Washburn, a member of the coalition. “These are weighty issues when you put all of them together. We needed to do that so they [the CPRB] could see the dots and how they’re potentially connected. They may see that there is one or more of these issues that they could pursue.”

“The law as established by the Common Council gives us authorization to review complaints by citizens,” responded Barbara Gaige, chair of the CPRB. “We do not have investigative power.” She said, however, that the CPRB would discuss it more fully and address the re quest at next month’s meeting.

The city’s ordinance states that the APD’s Professional Standards Unit is responsible for the investigation of every complaint filed. The CPRB can only review the investigations already done, or request further investigation by the PSU. The coalition’s faith in the unit is low.

“We have no confidence in any internal mechanisms, in terms of investigation or holding themselves accountable,” said Washburn.

Yet, the coalition seemed hopeful that the board will take their requests under full consideration. “I sensed from the chair there was a sincere receipt of our concerns,” said Washburn. “We’ll be back next month and see what they think is in their purview and then we’ll go from there.”

The coalition be lieves the city needs an agency independent from the APD that would hold the police department accountable. “We may some day be looking at the possibility of a police commission that does have more authority to pursue these kinds of complaints,” said Washburn. “It does take resources to pursue something like this.”

—Jess Bellack


What a Week

We’re spreading f***dom!

Microsoft’s new China-based MSN Spaces blog service doesn’t allow use of the words “freedom,” “democracy,” “demonstration,” “human rights,” and various other “forbidden speech.” Yahoo! and Google have made similar concessions. Microsoft says that it is just following local laws. Is that kind of like just following orders?

See No Evil, Broadcast No Evil

The so-called “Downing Street Memo”—minutes from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s July 23, 2002 meeting with the chief of British Foreign Intelligence, eight months before the invasion of Iraq—had Europe abuzz with the line: “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” However, it was more than a month before it got a mention in the U.S. network news. Bush, questioned about the memo for the first time over a month after its release, denied its claims. Several new memos pointing in the same direction have surfaced since then, and are collected at www.rawstory.com.

Meta-Walking

Schenectady native Jessica Stein is walking from her home in Brooklyn to the Clearwater Folk Festival in Croton-on-Hudson this week, because she wants to get there. Stein’s 50-mile walk will follow the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail and will take four to five days. It is without all the formalities often associated with “walks”—sponsorships, free T-shirts, a tear-jerker cause. Rather, Stein’s walk is meant to draw attention to the oft neglected act of walking itself: Stein hopes her walk will get people thinking about alternative modes of transportation and simpler living.

Freedom Fries, Freedom Toast, Freedom Flip Flops

Congressman Walter Jones (R-N.C.), the man who campaigned to have the French fries in the Congressional cafeteria renamed freedom fries now wants to bring the troops home. According to Jones, his change of heart came in 2003, after a funeral for a U.S. sergeant who had been killed in the line of duty. “I just feel that the reason for going in for weapons of mass destruction, the ability of the Iraqis to make a nuclear weapon, that’s all been proven that it was never there.”



Overheard

 

Overheard:“Do you have burritos?”

—Middle-aged white couple to the hostess of Thai Corner restaurant in Amherst, Mass.



Merrily, Merrily, Merrily

Last week, the Albany Rowing Center kindly invited Metroland to participate in a community rowing event as part of the Sports and Fitness Expo at the Albany Riverfront Park in the Corning Preserve. Metroland heartily accepted the challenge and assembled a team to represent the very acme of athleticism. Our group of four was rounded out by four experienced rowers provided by the ARC. Thus assisted, we faced off against other local media outlets and a couple of colleges on Saturday (June 11)—in 90-degree heat.

Staff writer Rick Marshall, senior associate editor John Rodat, administrative assistant Kristie Curtin and associate editor Kathryn Lurie (pictured l-r) rowed to a narrow win in the first 500-meter heat, with the help of our pros: Alanna Welspeak, Brian Smart, Rachel Rieder, Deborah Chesser and Kate Helmer. Then we watched as the Times Union rowed to victory in their heat. Nothing like rivals facing off in the finals. The day’s decisive match-up also included reigning champions, the Albany YMCA. And in the final . . . Metroland beat ’em like rented mules. Seriously, we just housed ’em. It was a victory for alternative media outlets everywhere. This one was for the kids. Look for us next year when we return to defend our title. In the meantime, interested folks can find out more about the rowing center by visiting www.albanyrowingcenter.org.


Between bakery and wrecking ball: Russell Ziemba.

photo:John Whipple

What Makes History?

Two buildings on Troy’s riverfront, including the first Friehofer’s bakery, face the wrecking ball for the third time in five years

When crossing the Hudson River from the village of Waterford to the Lansingburgh section of Troy, the façade of the Freihofer Bakery is difficult to overlook. The massive brick-and-stone structure on the southern side of the road greets new arrivals as they disembark Union Bridge, the first span built across the Hudson and the connecting point between two of New York’s oldest communities. A plaque on the Waterford side of the bridge proclaims the small municipality New York’s oldest incorporated village—a title once held by Lansingburgh, before it became a part of the city of Troy—while a small sign posted just past the eastern end of the bridge, outside the abandoned bakery, declares the east-west passage part of the “Hudson Mohawk Heritage Trail.”

Even among the most amateur of local historians, the region’s historic importance—in terms of both the state’s growth and that of the nation as a whole—is rarely the focus of disagreement. What will be decided in the near future, however, is whether the 92-year-old bakery and its neighbor, the 110-year-old Riverside Club, helped the region earn that distinction.

For nearly five years, preservation groups have been fighting a legal battle with the city of Troy and George Weston Bakeries, the Canadian company that now owns the Freihofer name, over the properties’ fates.

“If these buildings were in California, they’d be on the historic registry—no doubt about it,” sighed Russell Ziemba, president of the Historic Action Network, during a recent tour of the buildings’ perimeter. But because so much of Troy is old, even older than these buildings, they don’t stick out as they would in California.

Running his hand along a section of bright-red bricks, Ziemba gave the wall an affectionate pat, then a firm knock with the side of his fist. “It’s built like a bunker,” he laughed. “They don’t build like this anymore—not with these materials.”

“These buildings’ lives can be measured in centuries,” he added, staring up at one of the exterior’s tall brick arches, “not in 20- or 30-year cycles like their neighbors.” The sprawling parking lots of Hannaford and Price Chopper supermarkets lie to the north and south of the properties, respectively.

The histories of the club and bakery are marked by announcements of both buildings’ innovation—both the Riverside Club’s indoor bowling alleys and the bakery’s 70-foot-long “traveling bread oven” were trumpeted as the first of their kind.

The dispute over the properties’ fates began in 2000, when George Weston Bakeries announced plans to demolish both buildings to make way for an Eckerd drugstore. At the time, the bakery building was being used as a distribution center for Freihofer goods. Its run as the state’s first—and oldest—Freihofer bakery ended in 1987, more than 70 years after the Freihofer family first discovered local women’s inability to find time to bake their own bread between shifts at the local collar factories. This discovery, according to the official Freihofer Web site, “was the beginning of a 75-year commitment to the community.”

The city’s planning board gave its approval to the 2000 proposal, but HAN filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that the environmental impacts of demolition—in this case, the effect on the region’s historic resources—were understated in the property owner’s plan. HAN won an injunction, but GWB submitted a similar proposal two years later. The proposal was withdrawn after the planning board requested a more thorough evaluation of the plan’s potential environmental impacts.

GWB again announced plans to demolish the buildings this April 2004—this time without any details about post-removal use for the property. After some back-and-forth, plans came for a vote and was green-lighted on May 28 of this year. City policy requires review for only those plans that include new development, not applications for demolition.

HAN filed another lawsuit against the city and the properties’ owner, claiming that the city erred in approving the project without a review. The preservationists’ group also requested that the buildings be declared historic sites, but the city’s planning board declined to do so.

Two days be fore the demolition was scheduled, Supreme Court Judge James Canfield granted the buildings a reprieve. He heard from each party’s attorneys two weeks ago, and set a June 16 deadline for the preservationists’ lawyer, Stephen Downs, to submit a response to the day’s arguments. Jonathan Nye, the lawyer representing GWB, has until June 23 to respond to Downs’ filings.

Throughout the proceedings, attorneys for the properties’ owner and the city have not only argued that the buildings have no historic value, but that HAN has no legal standing to sue.

“We’ve listened to the same far-fetched ideas over and over again,” argued Nye at the June 2 hearing, adding that stories about the aroma of baking bread, horse-drawn carriages and the club’s unusual turret-style staircase and ballroom were “nostalgia,” not history.

Nye and Troy Corporation Counsel David Mitchell moved to dismiss the lawsuit because none of the petitioners’ homes lie within view of the properties.

A description of the company’s history on the official Freihofer Web site (frei hofers.gwbakeries.com) refers to the bakery as “indeed a part of the Troy community.”

Nye and Mitchell also denied Downs’ claims that interested buyers have been denied access to the properties. According to Nye, all of the buyers HAN has directed toward the properties have failed to make a commitment. Downs argued that grass-roots arrangement of such an expensive commitment takes time, often requiring several different groups to combine their resources. (The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s rowing club is one such group that’s expressed interest in the properties, according to Ziemba.) He then indicated that a potential buyer was seated directly behind him in the courtroom, and introduced her to the properties’ real-estate agent after the proceedings.

Before leaving the courtroom, Canfield said the debate over the buildings’ futures has gone on long enough.

“But maybe if we had this kind of interest in historic places in the 1970s, Uncle Sam’s house would still be standing,” he added.

Leaning against a portion of the bakery’s curving brick façade, Ziemba acknowledged that such a comment makes him optimistic. However, the lawsuit is not only a matter of preserving the two buildings, but also of the exposing flaws in the city’s policy towards development, he added. As long as the city makes it easier for property owners to get demolition permits if they avoid mentioning future development, he reasoned, the city stands to lose many of its historic resources.

And such resources aren’t always recognized in communities as old as Lansingburgh and Troy until it’s too late, said Ziemba—no matter how many people point them out.

In response to Nye’s assertion that nobody “with knowledge” has supported HAN’s claims, Ziemba gestured to several editorials written in local newspapers about the buildings’ plight in recent years, each of them with headlines like “Save Troy’s Past” and “Destruction Would Be Devastating.” An examination of the building’s architectural significance written by the Rev. Thomas Phelan, a former dean of architecture at RPI, was one of the many pieces of evidence included in the group’s petition to the planning board, said Ziemba.

Chain stores are not unwelcome in the area either, according to Ziemba. Several years ago, HAN made a presentation to the planning board that included a rendering of the bakery building with a new occupant: Eckerd drugstore. Designed with preservation of the building’s façade in mind, the sketch presented an alternative to demolition and big-box construction, he said. If more communities required such consideration from their new arrivals, communities would stand a better chance of preserving the very things that attract residents, he claimed.

“Simply put, communities that raise the standards will get a much better product,” he reasoned.

Neither Mitchell nor Nye returned calls for comment.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net

 

Fun With Numbers

One of the most loaded statistics around—sex-offender recidivism rates—is also one of the most commonly misstated

‘When studies show that 40 percent [of sex offenders] find new victims in their first year out of jail, the need for immediate action is clear,” stated New York State Republican Chairman Stephen Minarik in a recent press release.

Minarik cites a 2003 Department of Justice study that, he claims, shows “40 percent of sex predators repeat their crimes within one year of release from prison.”

The actual results of the study, however, paint a far different picture of recidivism rates.

“Of the 9,691 male sex offenders released from prisons in 15 states in 1994, 5.3 percent were rearrested for a new sex crime within three years of release,” states the federal study cited in Minarik’s statement. The study then goes on to indicate that 40 percent of those released sex offenders who reoffended did so within a year. This makes the actual percentage of sex offenders who reoffend within a year of their release 2 percent, not 40—a difference of more than 3,600 offenders between Minarik’s claims and the actual results of the study.

A call placed to Minarik’s office for comment on this inaccuracy was first placed on hold, then disconnected.

And while Minarik’s claims might be attributed to a careless toss of what has become one of this election year’s most prominent political footballs, the Republican chairman isn’t alone in misrepresenting the facts about sex-offender recidivism. Despite an abundance of studies indicating that the rates of reoffense among sex offenders are far lower than those of other criminals, both elected officials and members of the mainstream media have consistently painted sex offenders as unusually likely to reoffend.

An April 2005 editorial in Syracuse newspaper The Post-Standard claimed “50 percent of [sex offenders] will commit another sex crime.” A May 2005 editorial in The New York Post stated, “everyone knows that violent perverts are particularly resistant to ‘rehabilitation’—that their recidivist rates are high,” while a recent episode of New York Week in Review included Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio citing sex offenders’ “high rate of recidivism” as one of the reasons behind the recent flurry of sex-offender legislation.

What journalists aren’t reporting, however, is what data these assumptions are based upon. “The problem is that sex criminals are quite prone to recidivism,” stated an April 28, 2005, editorial in the Times Union. “There’s an avalanche of studies that have concluded as such.”

And yet the Times Union’s editorial failed to name any of the studies they drew this conclusion from. In fact, recent studies by the National Institute of Corrections (accessible on the Internet at http://nicic.org/Library/019724) and the federal government’s Center for Sex Offender Management (http://www.csom. org/pubs/recidsexof.html) indicate that released sex offenders are anywhere from 10- to 60-percent less likely to reoffend (depending on the type of offense) than criminals convicted of felonies and high-level misdemeanors.

“Most sex offenders do not reoffend sexually, with first-time sexual offenders and those sex offenders over 50 years old being less likely to offend,” concludes the NIC report.

Studies conducted on a state-by-state basis have yielded similar results, with Arizona’s Department of Corrections reporting a 5.5 percent rate of recidivism (for felony sex-crime convictions) among sex offenders, and Ohio reporting a rate of 8 to 11 percent.

When broken down by type of sex offense, NIC findings gauge the rates of reoffense over a 5-year period of time to be 6 percent for incest offenders, 14 percent for rapists and 9 to 23 percent for child molesters. Many of the national and statewide studies echo these findings.

In contrast, Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that 68 percent of high-level non-sex offenders—such as murderers, drug kingpins and those arrested for violent assault or grand theft—are likely to be rearrested for another serious crime within three years.

There is one outlying study that might be providing the higher rates some are quoting—an Illinois report showed that in 2000, 55 percent of sex offenders returned to prison within three years. However, since the reasons for those prison returns included non-sex offenses and technical probation violations such as missing a meeting with a probation officer, the numbers are not comparable.

Given the nature of the crimes, the rates of recidivism on sex offenses, especially child molestation, are still too high. Perhaps more troubling is the probability that these offenses are underreported in the first place. Nonetheless, inaccurate statistics help no one, especially if they spur legislators to redirect scarce public funds away from promising areas of sex-offender management (such as treatment, inter-agency cooperation, or adding basic monitoring for the large number of offenders who serve their full sentences and therefore are not monitored at all) [“Beyond the Registry,” May 12] and toward more flashy and expensive approaches like lifetime registry or longer jail terms.

With the media and public officials both staying “on message” with exaggerated facts about recidivism, questions remain about whether the public will ever be able to form an accurate assessment of the threat posed by sex offenders—and therefore the best way to protect communities from them.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Loose Ends

Following in the footsteps of activists at UAlbany [“Don’t Ask, Don’t Recruit,” Newsfront, March 10, 2005], nearly 100 Averill Park High School students protested the presence of military recruiters on June 8, and pleaded with the school board to forbid their presence on school grounds. Last month the board changed its policy to no longer allow recruiters to pass out phamphlets and other items in the cafeteria, but they are still permitted to hand out information in other areas of the school. The students feel that banning the military would be within the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act because they would be being treated the same as college recruiters and employers—not allowed in if they discriminate, in this case against gays.



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