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Bill Parkis

Under the Gun

With a public-safety controversy broiling, everyone in Schenectady seems to agree: The police are overwhelmed

By Nicole Klaas

Photos by Chris Shields

 

Eleanor Parkis’ plastic surgeon at Albany Medical Center told her family it was possibly the worst case he had ever seen, says Bill Parkis, her brother. The severe beating Eleanor Parkis suffered at the hands of four men at the corner of Craig and Stanley streets in Schenectady left Parkis’ fractured face dripping, soaking her shirt in red. At the hospital, screws were inserted into her face to hold her jaw together. Her mouth was wired shut. Titanium plates substituted for her cheeks, and bones that had been shattered to the point of powder had to be vacuumed rather than pulled from her face.

“They’re going to have to put gold plates in the bottom of her eyelid because her eyelid won’t close all the way,” said Darcee Parkis, Bill’s wife. “If she sneezes, she has to hold her eye in because she could sneeze her eye out.”

The corner of Craig and Stanley streets is in the heart of Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood, an area that, especially in recent years, has become notorious for crime and poverty. Police crime statistics reveal that Hamilton Hill ranks among the highest areas for crime in Schenectady across the board—robberies, burglaries, gun violence. Hamilton Hill also has become a hotbed for drug and gang activity. As part of an effort to deter illegal activities, several security cameras have been installed in Schenectady, primarily in the Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods.

At a minimum, at least one of these cameras should have captured footage of Eleanor Parkis’ assault and her attackers, but because the Schenectady police did not report the incident until Jan. 12—10 days after the attack—the footage was recorded over as part of the seven-day loop of the cameras.

“We don’t live in a dream world,” Darcee Parkis says. “We know that when you get assaulted like that, you may never find the person who did it. Had they responded that night, they could have maybe found the people walking the streets still.”

Even if the police hadn’t responded that night, but had followed up in the morning or anytime within that week, the camera footage would still have been intact, Bill Parkis says.

The couple says the best explanation that they have received from the police department is that the incident simply slipped through the cracks.

“You have cameras there,” Bill Parkis says. “You have evidence that’s gone. Somebody obviously didn’t do their job, and because of that, my sister didn’t get an investigation.”

The Parkises’ complaint is just one of numerous criticisms about the Schenectady police department that have surfaced and resurfaced during recent weeks. The complaints range from reports of slow police response to calls for assistance to inappropriate behavior by some officers—one officer was charged with attacking a friend in order to keep him quiet after a car crash, while another pleaded guilty to exposing a wiretap investigation to the subject. There’s also the fiasco associated with the disappearance of several bags of crack cocaine from a police-department evidence locker, an incident that was followed by a decision to place a sergeant, who was in charge of the locker, on administrative leave—with pay.

Such incidents, especially in combination, simply aren’t sitting well with many of Schenectady’s residents and city politicians.

“We’re paying a lot of taxes for this service,” says Vince Riggi, a resident in the Bellevue neighborhood, “and most people don’t feel that they’re getting their money’s worth from this service.” In addition to the obvious impact on safety in the city, Riggi says that ultimately policing is a quality-of-life issue, and one that doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves.

Concerns about the city’s police department are nothing new for Schenectady. On some level, the City Council has been discussing and addressing police issues for years. More recently, the topic has been on the agenda consistently, ever since several residents spoke up with complaints about slow response times and unreturned phone calls during the open-forum portion of a council meeting last month.

While there are many residents who remain supportive of the department and satisfied with its service, such praise has been eclipsed by criticisms and concern. “There’s nobody in the middle anymore,” councilmember Gary McCarthy, chairman of the public safety committee, said when the council met for a committee meeting on Monday (March 5). Ambivalence is no more, he says, and instead there are either those who think the police department is good or those who think the department is bad.

Council member Joseph Allen says this split in public perception about the police department may have a lot to do with the difference in service some areas of the city receive over others.

“If you call the police and it takes them every bit from an hour, to two hours, three hours, two or three days, before they respond, that’s a serious problem,” Allen says, “and I think certain areas in the city get a slower response than others. People in the GE plot or upper Union Street get their response quicker on a regular basis, not just every now and then, but fairly regularly.”

‘It’s been a slow day,” says Lieutenant Brian Kilcullen, a platoon commander with the Schenectady police, as he walks across the parking lot toward a department SUV. He says that the department was expecting several vehicle-accident calls due to the freezing rain that fell earlier in the morning of March 2, but the phones are surprisingly quiet.

In the department’s small dispatch office, four civilian dispatchers are stationed behind U-shaped desks. Their faces are blocked by large computer screens—one that can be used to instantly zoom in on a specific address in the city to allow dispatchers to better direct officers who respond to a call, and another that displays the status of all on-duty officers, as well as a listing of calls still waiting for response.

Kilcullen’s first call this morning is to a home on Phoenix Avenue, where an elderly woman was found dead. Two other squad cars already are on the scene when he arrives. Upon consulting with other officers and finding the situation sufficiently staffed, Kilcullen returns to the patrol vehicle as the evidence technician arrives in a police van to photograph the scene.

“On a call like that, you try to spend some time, comfort the family if you can,” Kilcullen says. “You can easily be tied up for an hour.”

Only moments after returning to the driver’s seat, an assault-with-a-vehicle call comes through the radio. Kilcullen radios in to dispatch that he’s headed to the scene, in front of the Mini Mart & Deli on Albany Street in Hamilton Hill.

As he drives, Kilcullen explains how the city is divided into eight zones. Generally, one car patrols each zone until the officer receives a call from dispatch. If the officer assigned to the zone in which the call originates is busy, typically an available officer from another zone is requested. It can be a hard decision to make, pulling an officer from his zone patrol, Kilcullen says, but “if we stuck to the zone concept, calls would wait even longer.”

The scratchy voice of the dispatcher interrupts Kilcullen, as a report comes through that the incident on Albany Street was not accidental. Kilcullen flips on the vehicle’s lights as the siren releases a few “woop-woop” sounds.

Two squad cars are already on the scene, as well as a fire truck and an ambulance, which departs shortly after Kilcullen jumps from the driver’s seat and dashes across the road. Passersby, store owners and residents gather across the street from the Mini Mart & Deli and in storefront windows to watch. Although the individuals who were struck by the vehicle—which also plowed into the front window of the Mini Mart & Deli, spewing glass onto the cement—have already been evacuated by ambulance, chaos remains.

A woman in the apartment above the Mini Mart stands in the window yelling obscenities and flipping her middle finger down at another woman, who stands beside the door of a car parked in front of the store. A couple officers stand at the front door that leads up to the apartments, conversing with the individuals in the doorway.

The situation turns to disarray when a few individuals lunge toward each other, prompting the police to physically separate and then guide each into the backseats of waiting squad cars, which head back to the police station.

Kilcullen agrees to drive another witness, a woman associated with the incident although she hadn’t been involved in the physical fighting. At least one squad car will remain on the scene until the evidence technician can complete his work and the store owner’s statement is secured.

“You can see how resources get depleted quickly,” Kilcullen says, as the witness in the backseat repeats her disbelief at the situation that just unfolded in front of her residence.

There’s little disagreement among all Schenectady community constituencies that the biggest problem facing the police department is the lack of human resources. It’s a point the Albany Street incident illustrates well. What began as a quiet morning has now tied up at least three cars—two that transport individuals to the station, and the one that remains on the scene. It’s safe to assume at least one zone, though likely more, does not have a patrolling officer.

“I think there’s always going to be challenges until we make some additional staffing changes, hiring some more people and so forth,” Mayor Brian Stratton says.

The department currently employs about 150 officers, and it has around 14 vacancies. It’s an example of a situation additional dollars can’t cure, however. Police Chief Michael Geraci says he would love to fill all of the department’s vacancies, but his hands are tied by New York’s civil-service requirements.

To begin with, the city department is constrained by state law, which requires persons interested in police work to first pass a civil-service exam. The exam is offered only once a year, in December. The results are not reported to the department until the following March.

During a recent hiring cycle, Geraci says the department received civil-service exam results listing 51 qualified candidates out of the hundreds who took the exam. This pool of applicants, however, typically depletes rapidly. By the time the department was ready to send candidates to the six-month police academy in July, only six candidates remained—30 initially declined the department’s letter offering the applicant a chance to participate in the hiring process; seven failed the agility test; three didn’t make it through the interview portion; two were disqualified during the background check, psychological exam and medical exam requirement; and, in the end, three accepted offers at other agencies.

“New York is antiquated in the way we do things for civil service,” Geraci says. “We need to look at how other states have done this, and there are plenty of other ways of doing it.”

Some states have a system comparable to a licensure program in which individuals can obtain their credentials from a community college so that the only remaining requirement is a significantly shorter police academy that lasts four to six weeks.

Geraci says lobbying efforts are underway throughout the state to modify state law with regard to the civil-service exam. Alternatively, a partnership between the police academy and a local community college could allow for a pre-credentialing program that would also reduce the current restraints on quick and effective hiring practices.

To support this twofold effort, the Schenectady City Council voted Monday to draft resolutions stating the city’s support for these measures.

Changes to the hiring process, even if they come quickly, are still months and months, if not years, in the future. Until long-term solutions can be secured, the department must work within the hand it has been dealt, Geraci says. This may mean creative solutions for freeing up more time and officers.

“We’re doing research on best practices from around the country,” Geraci says. “Some of the agencies have what they call telephone-reporting units, TRUs. You might not have to see a police officer face-to-face.” Additionally, the ability for residents to conduct some police-related operations online would also free up officers, who may no longer need to respond to more minor incidents.

“There are plenty of agencies throughout the nation that are doing practices like this now, for the same reason, because you’ve got to find ways to provide good, quality service,” Geraci says. “At the same time, you’ve got to find ways to use your available resources the best you can.”

At the top of the list of ideas receiving serious discussion among council members and police officials is consolidating booking with the county, a conversation that has been ongoing between the city and the county for several years. Under a consolidated booking system, individuals who are arrested could be taken directly to the county jail. All the necessary processing and paperwork could take place there, rather than the current system, which requires Schenectady officers to take individuals to the city’s lockup until they are arraigned by a judge.

“What does that do for us?” Geraci says. “It gets those police officers back on the street quicker, and it also takes police officers out of the cell block area because you don’t have prisoners to monitor.” With three to six officers staffing the city lockup each day, the result would be an additional one to two officers per shift. Consolidated booking, however, would require a slight modification to state corrections law.

Riggi suggests an alternative form of cooperation between the county and the city. “Why not let the sheriff’s department handle the low-priority calls?” he says. “I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I’m paying taxes to the county, I’m paying taxes to the state, and I’m paying taxes to the city, so I don’t care what color uniform anybody is wearing if they’re going to come help me when I need some help.”

Jim Weaver leans forward in the back booth of the Broadway Restaurant and Lunch in Schenectady’s Bellevue neighborhood. Even though he’s engaged in a conversation about how police efforts to crack down on drugs and crime in the areas of Hamilton Hill and Mount Pleasant have pushed these activities into his own neighborhood, Weaver’s eyes are fixed elsewhere, on a house kitty-corner from the diner. For weeks, he’s had his eye on the place, where he says a drug dealer inhabits the second-floor apartment.

The waitress, a woman named Lisa, approaches the booth with a pot of coffee in hand. She and Weaver trade stories about the house and its tenant, a man Lisa calls Filthy Phil. She tells Weaver that she regularly witnesses Filthy Phil’s drug deals.

“I’m waiting for a big shoot-out over there,” she says.

Weaver makes a face as if to say, “I told you so,” to anyone who didn’t believe his word alone. “Everybody knows what’s going on, and you mean to tell me the cops don’t know? That’s why we get upset.”

Weaver says three police cars responded to that house only two nights prior, but left without arresting anyone. The temporary police presence didn’t scare any of the neighborhood’s drug dealers, however. Hours after the squad cars departed, activity renewed. “They are not afraid,” Weaver says.

In Bellevue, Weaver’s red Ford F-150 is well-known by neighbors and drug dealers alike. In many ways, he’s the neighborhood’s most consistent safety patrol. “I’ve been watching the neighborhood for 12 years and reporting things now and then,” Weaver says, “but just recently, I’d say from last summer until now, I’ve really been doing a lot.” On average, he circles the neighborhood for a few hours each day. Tonight he’s been “on duty” for nearly three hours, in which time he’s only once spotted a squad car.

Weaver says he’s noticed the migration and increased presence of drug activity in Bellevue for months, but especially since the turn of the year. Since then, he’s been calling the police to leave tips about the people and houses associated with drug activity that he’s witnessed. “I’d tell them, would you please just give me a courtesy call back to let me know that you’re getting this information and that the answering machine is not broken,” he says, but he rarely hears back.

That’s when Weaver decided to speak up at a City Council meeting last month. Now he’s getting numerous calls from the police chief, vice squad and the sheriff’s department.

Not all residents, however, will be as persistent as Weaver has been, says fellow Bellevue neighborhood resident Riggi. Over the years, Riggi has become a dumping ground for many residents who have complaints about the city and the police department. He says the lack of communication between the police and tipsters is frustrating. “I understand they [the police] can’t just rush the house and start arresting people, but at least let the informers know, ‘We’re working on it. It’s going to take a while to build a case.’ Let the people know what’s going on,” he says. “If the ears of the people you’re telling it to are closed, well, after a while you give up.”

Geraci refers to this as the “customer service” component of the police department, and acknowledges there’s room for improvement. “I think we have to do a better job of lowering the level of expectation and anxiety,” he says. “We’re working on this internally. Some of the things we’re doing is working with our communications staff, developing better customer-service skills when we know that it’s extremely busy. Can we provide information upfront to the caller, to tell them ‘this is going to be a delayed response, it may be up to this time?’ ”

Beginning next month, Geraci says he also plans to attend every neighborhood and business-association meeting in the city to present attendees with the facts about where the department is at today as well as gather feedback from residents.

It has been more than two months since Bill Parkis’ sister was brutally beaten on the streets of Schenectady, and he’s still left with plenty of what-if questions and without many answers.

“Had [the police] shown up before Jan. 9, I would have had a film,” he repeats. “They never showed up until the 12th. I didn’t have no film. It was gone.”

The Parkises say that living in Schenectady with an untrustworthy police department has caused them to fear for their safety, as well as the safety of their daughter and two young grandchildren.

“Schenectady police go home at night,” Bill Parkis says. “They don’t live in Schenectady. They’re protected by somebody else. Why can’t we be protected by somebody else?”

Currently, Schenectady police are not required to live within the city limits, and some do reside in surrounding communities.

Riggi supports reforming residency rules so that all officers must live in Schenectady, the benefits of which he says would be twofold. “I think it’s only normal that somebody who lives in the neighborhood, lives in the city, maybe they’re going to take a little more interest in seeing that it can be the best it can be.” Secondly, when police officers live in the city, it also contributes to a sense of security for their neighbors and helps to establish a more friendly relationship between citizenry and police.

Riggi first became interested in police matters about eight or nine years after an elderly woman in Bellevue was mugged while walking to midnight mass. “The police did not come. When she got to the hospital, finally the hospital called and then the police came to get a report from the lady. It was upsetting to think that there was no police response for an elderly lady who was getting mugged and having her purse stolen.”

The incident helped to incite public debate about the police, he says. “There were meetings held over it, almost like the same idea we’re having now. The same thing, and I hear the same answers: We’re understaffed, crime is up. All these things we hear over and over again, but they have not come up with a solution. It’s not my job to have a solution. I’m the taxpayer. I want our government to have a solution. I want Brian Stratton as CEO of the city of Schenectady to come up with a solution.”

Stratton says he’s taking the issue “very, very seriously,” and is determined to make changes.

“I don’t deny that there are some internal problems, and there are things that we need to look into to make sure that we are doing better,” he says. “If there are a few bad apples in there, they absolutely need to go or need to be brought into line. We need to get reforms in the police-labor contract, which, to some extent, does tie our hands in what we’re able to do.”

The police contract expired at the end of 2006. The city and PBA currently are renegotiating.

nklaas@metroland.net


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