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Excuse me, governor! Terry O'Neill says the key to community policing is already on the books.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

It Says So Right Here

A forgotten law from 1983 could bring community policing back to New York state

Like a number of issue-specific activists, Terry O’Neill, a criminal-justice consultant who advises the Albany County district attorney’s office, wanted to hear a little bit more about his issue in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s State of the State address. He would have liked to have heard about the governor’s take on public safety. But unlike other activists who want to push the governor and the Legislature to pass a piece of legislation tailored to their pet issue, O’Neill simply wants Spitzer to utilize a law that has been on the books since the early ’80s—a law that Albany County District Attorney David Soares calls “one of the most brilliant pieces of legislation ever drafted, empowering neighborhoods and empowering people.”

O’Neill, who has made a name for himself in the criminal-justice community, has doggedly been trying to get the attention of the Spitzer administration by using his contacts, which include mayors, members of Spitzer’s transition team and even former governors.

The law O’Neill wants Spitzer to recognize is the Neighborhood Preservation Crime Prevention Act, which was signed by former Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1983. The law would have seen the creation of neighborhood-specific, nonprofit corporations funded by the state. The corporations would have been charged with increasing each community’s involvement in local crime-fighting issues and instituting cooperation between neighborhoods and their law-enforcement institutions. But according to O’Neill, the state had turned its attention away from community involvement and toward increasing the state’s prison capacity.

O’Neill, who comes from a family with a long history of policing, notes that programs like Operation Impact, which deploys officers into high-crime areas for a limited amount of time, do not foster stability and need to be complemented by community-based programs.

“There is a drastic need for that sort of legislation in all upstate communities, not just here in the city of Albany,” said Soares. “It fits in perfectly with my community-prosecution philosophy that says people in neighborhoods are the only people that can change their community. And we’ve got to give them the resources to do it.”

“It’s one of those good laws on the books nobody has taken ownership of, for whatever reason,” said state Assemblyman and historian John McEneny (D-Albany). McEneny points out that the state has periodically gone through financial crises, and as a result, things that were supposed to be temporarily without funding have been lost in the shuffle.

“Sometimes the temporary delays turn into permanent ones,” he said. “The thing about Day One is, Spitzer is someone else. He is coming in refreshed. One of the great strengths of our democracy is that every four years we get a chance to try new things. We get to try things that have failed, things that were the right thing at the wrong time.”

According to McEneny, the need for community policing has not always existed. “Years ago, the cops lived in the neighborhoods. When a kid was acting up or people were suspicious of goings-on or creepy-looking strangers walked by, the cop only lived a block or so away.”

McEneny said that as city police officers became better paid, they began an exodus into the suburbs. “We now have a generation of police officers that never lived in a city. They were educated in suburban schools. We have police officers with an urban mindset and a suburban ZIP code. That is one of the reasons why you have to suddenly say, ‘You have to get the community involved.’ The police were the community, they actually lived there.”

Should the Spitzer administration notice the law and act to fund it and update it for use, O’Neill made it clear, it would not be a quick fix for the state’s crime-ridden areas. He pointed to his experience on a task force that was asked to provide policing for a Mohawk reservation.

“We had state troopers in large numbers occupy the reservation, because they didn’t have their own police force and didn’t like outsiders telling them what to do,” he said. “So, we spent two years developing a consensus on what kind of public-entity service the Mohawks could have that satisfied their needs, and then we could take the state troopers out of there.” At the end, O’Neill said, his task force named someone from the community as police chief, who then put together his own police department.

In contrast, O’Neill pointed to the recent change in the structure of Albany’s police department. “I don’t see that going on here in Albany. [Police Chief James] Tuffey was trying to sell the community on this plan. It was pretty vague up until now. He did have a number of community meetings, but if you get 100 people together where only a fraction of them get to ask one question, most questions turn out to be complaints or speeches with no meaningful dialogue. The process should have been handled differently.”

O’Neill stressed that the biggest challenge is making sure the community is involved in defining what community policing means to them.

“There is no definition that says, ‘This is what community policing is,’ ” he said. “Some of the projects I’ve been involved in have had some kind of major restructuring in the police’s relationship with the community. But there has to be a consensus for what community policing means to our community. You can’t put the cart before the horse.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

$975 Million and It Can All Be Yours

That’s right. A Spanish real-estate agency has slapped that hefty price tag on the Principality of Sealand, the world’s smallest nation. Located atop two massive concrete legs in the North Sea, the nation is a 6,000-square-foot platform built by the British during the Second World War to serve as an anti-aircraft base. Back in 1967, a retired major in the British army, Paddy “Prince” Roy Bates, commandeered the manmade “island” and declared himself its king. Now, after fighting off two invasion attempts and surviving a devestating fire, the Bates family have decided to move ashore and sell their “land.”

Flexing Their Muscle

Congressional Democrats are gearing up for a battle over troop escalation in Iraq. According to the Associated Press, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that she will support a vote on binding legislation to stymie any effort to increase the number of troops sent to Iraq, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stated that the Senate will send a wake-up call to the president.

A Good Call

As he promised during the campaign, Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced he would reduce the exorbinant fees for collect calls made from New York state’s prison system. The price gouging of prisoners’ calls (a rate more than 600 percent higher than regular collect calls) was status quo all throughout former Gov. George Pataki’s administration, drawing a lawsuit from the Center for Consitutional Rights. The case had worked its way up to the Court of Appeals, which was set to begin hearing arguments when Spitzer’s office issued the statement that they would cut the cost of calls by more than 50 percent on April 1.

Cut Back on the Doggie Treats?

Apparently, the sedentary lifestyle of their masters has taken a toll on the nation’s pooches. This week, Food and Drug Administration announced that it has approved Pfizer’s new diet pill for dogs. Depending on which report you read, it is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of United States dogs are overweight, but practically everyone agrees that throwing a frisbee around would do both master and mutt some good.



You Can Park My Car

Supporters of a proposed Lark Street valet service are undeterred by its bumpy start

By the end of the month, people who frequent Albany’s Lark Street may be able to pull up in front of Justin’s and have a valet take their car to a lot down the street for $7. There already are signs in front of the restaurant reserving the three spots adjacent to the establishment on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 6 PM to 4 AM. All that’s missing is city approval.

Albany Vpass is a valet program designed with two goals in mind, said its creator, Justin’s owner John DeJohn: to clear up parking traffic on Lark Street, and to decrease the amount of drunk driving in Albany. Customers who pull into one of the three designated parking spaces will have their cars taken to an Albany Yellow Cab parking lot at 137 Lark St. Vpass will also offer a shuttle service, open to everyone—not just customers of the valet service—for $2 a ride ($1 if you’re a valet customer).

Although the service is set to begin on Jan. 18, Vpass has not yet obtained the explicit public approval of the city, despite the presence of the parking sign on Lark Street and the city’s logo on the program’s Web site. Bob VanAmburgh, an executive assistant to Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, said the program will not officially launch until all of its coordinators meet again in the coming week.

“I can’t be premature to say [the city has endorsed Vpass] until we really meet again to finalize some outstanding issues,” VanAmburgh said. He did not elaborate on what issues remained to be resolved.

Besides lacking the mayor’s public approval, Vpass has run into a number of other obstacles in its implementation. The program originally was supposed to debut during Thanksgiving week of last year, says Leonard Crouch, coordinator of STOP-DWI for Albany County, which is a partner in the Vpass program. Administrative problems postponed the start date until Christmas, then Jan. 11, and finally to the current date, Jan. 18. The shuttle service will not initially cover the entire city, either. According to its Web site, the shuttle will run only on Lark Street, Madison Avenue and New Scotland Avenue, leaving out popular nightlife districts like Pearl Street.

Like most start-up organizations, Vpass faces an uphill battle financially. The program already has spent close to $60,000 on two 34-seat buses and promotional materials, says Vpass executive director Alain Kayembe. The program is hoping to raise funds by offering bars a $20-per-night package that includes promotional items like coasters and a guaranteed shuttle stop.

Vpass’ financial difficulties will complicate the nonprofit program’s charitable aspirations. All surplus funds the program generates are to be donated to Albany County STOP-DWI. Kayembe believes it may be six months to a year before the program actually turns a profit. Crouch is less optimistic.

“I don’t see any profit from this program for a long way,” said Crouch. “I’d be hesitant to say there was going to be any profit at all. It’s a new initiative, and it will take time to be utilized by people.”

Another question surrounding the program is if and how it will police drunk drivers. The creators originally considered using Breathalyzers to determine whether patrons were sober enough to drive. After discussing the matter with the Albany police, however, it was decided the program was not yet ready for Breathalyzers, either practically or legally. Kayembe maintains that Vpass will refuse to return car keys to customers its employees deem too intoxicated to drive, although he seemed unsure as to whether Vpass employees were obligated to tell customers this prior to their use of the valet service.

“It’s very easy to design a program, but when it’s implemented on the ground, there’s always glitches,” said Kayembe. “We don’t want to scare people away [by a police presence or Breathalyzer test]. We want people to have a good time. There are so many accidents. We just want people to be safe.”

VanAmburgh said the mayor has a press conference scheduled for Jan. 18 to officially announce the program.

—Greg Ryan




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