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A Test Long Failed

‘Consider it a test” began the recent Times Union editorial titled “A Test of Leadership,” which stated that, in the face of the fatal shooting of 10-year-old Kathina Thomas and other acts of gun violence around Albany, now is the time for Albany Police Chief James Tuffey and Mayor Jerry Jennings to lead. At this point, however, the idea that Tuffey and Jennings are still in the midst of some sort of test—to see whether they can provide safety for the citizens of Albany, no less—is beginning to sound absurd, if not utterly insulting. This is a test long failed. The pair’s lack of leadership on this issue is well established. If Jennings and Tuffey had bothered to listen to the good advice of many of this community’s true leaders, they would not be acting as though the presence of “community guns” and the community’s general distrust of the police are new problems. Perhaps recent tragedies could have been avoided.

Tuffey still can’t let the word “gang” pass his lips. “Groups of kids” is his favorite turn of phrase. The time for denial is long over. The city’s real leaders have been dealing with these issues for years, and they have not tried to sugar-coat, dissuade, or lie to the public to do damage control for their political ambitions. The future leaders of Albany have made themselves apparent by addressing the issues Albany faces, while Jennings and Tuffey have denied them.

Yes, there are community guns; this is not a new revelation, and Jennings and Tuffey have had their time to act. Unless they have had their heads buried in sand, they have long been aware of these problems.

Three years ago, a Metroland staffer sat with David Soares as he explained how urgently he needed access to abandoned buildings in Albany to confiscate community firearms. He detailed the resistance he was receiving from landlords and even certain heads of city government at the time.

Almost a decade before, Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) worked to establish a weed-and-seed program, which dealt with the presence of guns located in abandoned buildings. Long before the recent shooting of Kathina Thomas, Calsolaro knew that Albany needed a gun-violence task force to bring the community together around the issue. If Calsolaro had been in Jennings’ shoes, the issues of community guns and gangs would have been in the open for a decade. And the task force would have been long-established, offering a forum for vibrant public discussion.

As for the issue of community cooperation with the police, Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) has offered to work with the police department to build trust between the communities he represents and the police officers that protect them. Ellis has extended his hand to Tuffey and offered to task a number of respected members of his community with walking with officers and introducing them to members of the community—to give the officers a better chance to know the people they are protecting and for the community to know their protectors. But according to Ellis, the chief told him only that he would think about it. Like all ideas Jennings can’t claim as his own, Ellis’ idea has been left to languish.

Perhaps some Albanians still remember Calsolaro telling the mayor that people in his neighborhood were scared because of gangs and gun violence. Perhaps they remember Jennings’ reply: He claimed he does not have to listen “to what Calsolaro says” and told Calsolaro to get out and walk his streets to see how safe they are. How safe does the mayor think the streets of his city are now, when a 10-year-old girl can be shot dead with a bullet fired by an anxious 15-year-old?

“There’s a crisis in Albany, and nothing short of a crusade can reverse it. That’s why the mayor and the police chief are in the hot seat,” the Times Union’s editorial concludes. If the only way to solve Albany’s gun violence problem is a crusade by Tuffey and Jennings, then Albany is a lost cause. Because Jennings and Tuffey refuse to listen to their community. The chief can’t be bothered to sit through a full meeting of the gun-violence task force. Occasionally he even asks to speak before the public comment period, so he can dart out. While he attends meetings in Albany and consistently hears the refrain, “We need community policing, we need our beat cops,” he ignores it. Having a new cop on your street every other day does not build trust in the police force. It feels like a faceless, invading force.

It is one thing to attend meetings. To compromise and share ideas is another. Jennings and Tuffey have long alienated the community members they need to help them improve the city. They have burned the bridges to the forward thinkers and politicians and activists who are on the street making a difference. Come next November we expect Jennings, if he does decide to run again, will face the final grade he has earned by choosing not to listen to all the communities of Albany, only the ones who line his campaign coffers. Unless he dramatically alters his governing style in the next year, we expect he will be replaced, hopefully by someone who can unify Albany and repair the ugly scars left by neglect and denial. The Albany police want to do their jobs well, and they will continue doing their best no matter who is in charge. But our next mayor needs to appoint a chief who can lead and listen. Hopefully another life won’t be lost while we wait for someone to pass the test of real leadership.

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