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Now policing from afar: Christian D’Alessandro (left) receiving his promotion to commander in January 2000.

They Got Him Off the Streets
Why has one of Albany’s best neighborhood cops been relegated to desk duty?

People can’t find enough praise for Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro and his work on the crime-addled streets of Albany’s Arbor Hill, West Hill and South End neighborhoods. The good words cease, however, when conversation turns to the recent shuffling within the Albany Police Department that took D’Alessandro off the streets and relegated him to a desk.

On Oct. 3, Cmdr. Steve Stella retired from the Albany Police Department to take a position as the head of security at the College of St. Rose. Stella’s responsibilities, which included administering the daily police activity in the eastern and western portions of the city, were given to D’Alessandro, who was already in charge of northern and southern Albany. D’Alessandro is now responsible for scheduling shifts, monitoring overtime and supervising all police officers throughout the city.

Since his reassignment, city residents say D’Alessandro has been absent from a number of community functions and neighborhood group meetings at which he had been a regular. They are concerned that the commander’s new responsibilities have saddled him with too much office work and taken away his ability to work the streets.

“It was a bad move,” said Marilyn Hammond, South End block captain with Albany Operation Weed and Seed. “He was right there in the community. He was at the block parties. Whatever it was, he was there. . . . I don’t know what the reasoning was behind all this, but we’re really going to miss him.”

When asked to comment for this story, D’Alessandro referred all inquiries to an Albany Police Department spokesman, Detective James Miller.

“I was unaware that his role had diminished [in the neighborhoods],” Miller said.

“Obviously his ability to interact with them in those groups is restricted because of his responsibilities right now, and that is only because of the retirement.”

Although much of the commander’s time in his former capacity was consumed with tent of Arbor Hill, called D’Alessandro a “delight to work with,” and said he was the first police officer in her neighborhood that she trusted.

“I’ve found him to be a very compassionate person—not an adjective I regularly pull out of a hat to describe those working in law enforcement. That has not been my experience [as an African-American],” said Smith.

Helen Black, a member of the Ten Broeck Triangle Preservation League and longtime community activist, agreed with Smith, saying that D’Alessandro brought a fresh approach to law enforcement in Arbor Hill. “He was the one out on the street talking to the drug dealers, talking to the gang members,” Black said. “He was the one that set the tone for real change in Arbor Hill. I’m just very distraught by this.”

But Black said D’Alessandro was more than a police presence on the streets—he made himself a member of the community. Black recalled the commander’s role in organizing a celebration for the 100th anniversary of V.J. Franze and Sons Market at 51-53 N. Swan St. D’Alessandro set up a basketball game between the police department and neighborhood residents, and helped prepare the soul-food barbecue. The commander’s presence in the community was the kind of police work that was making way for change, Black said.

“The bottom line for most of this is building a relationship so the residents will have the trust to call the police and tell them what’s going on,” Black said. “I can’t tell you how many people call me and tell me things because they won’t call the police. Commander D’Alessandro was changing all that.”

Anger over D’Alessandro’s reassignment isn’t limited to northern Albany. Betsy Mercogliano, a resident of 6 Wilbur St. in the South End who worked with D’Alessandro on a number of issues in her community, testified before Albany’s Common Council on Oct. 6 and expressed her concerns with the commander’s removal from street duties.

“Albany is in rough, rough shape in terms of Arbor Hill and the South End . . . and what Chris was doing was really, really important,” Mercogliano said.

Miller could not say whether D’Alessandro’s community-oriented policing would continue or not, but did say that the police department is not looking to eliminate or neglect any of its community-policing programs. “Right now there are other community police officers there that are assigned to the work Chris was doing,” Miller said. “We don’t expect anything to lapse because of the other officers there.”

“They may say [that community policing] is still going on,” Mercogliano said, “but when you pull the guts out of it, there ain’t much left.”

—Travis Durfee

Fighting Back: Tyler Arms Veterans Home is suing for the return of its zoning permit.

Down But Not Out
Albany Housing Coalition sues the city for revoking veterans-home permit

There are eight different charges against the city of Albany in the lawsuit filed by the Albany Housing Coalition last Thursday (Oct. 9) in State Supreme Court. The lawsuit seeks an annulment of the Sept. 10 decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals that revoked the coalition’s special-use permit to operate the Tyler Arms home for disabled elderly veterans at 688 Madison Ave. Public Safety Commissioner John Nielsen requested the revocation because the coalition had temporarily housed clients of a drug rehab program in the house, which violated its zoning. [Newsfront, Sept. 18]

The lawsuit charges that the city failed to “articulate any relationship between the alleged complaint of the Commissioner . . . and the Petitioner’s permitted use of the Premises,” and details several procedural missteps by the zoning board, such as allowing the commissioner’s hearing to supersede a request they had already submitted to expand their allowed uses and delays in filing its decisions. But the most important part of the lawsuit, say coalition board and staff, is the fair-housing issue.

People with alcohol and drug dependency are considered disabled for the purposes of national fair-housing laws, and it is illegal to discriminate against them or attempt to keep housing for them out of a neighborhood merely on the basis of their handicap. The coalition’s lawsuit charges that the decision to revoke their permit was “motivated by an animus towards persons suffering from alcoholism and drug abuse.” Executive director David Stacey has alleged that the restriction in the original zoning permit allowing the coalition to house only veterans may also have been questionable under fair-housing law, though that issue is not covered in the lawsuit.

The coalition has won a short-term temporary restraining order enabling it to delay moving out the home’s 35 residents. The organization had been given 30 days from the Sept. 10 decision to vacate the property. Coalition members are hoping that the restraining order can be extended to give them sufficient time to place all the residents in case they do not win their case. Stacey said he believes it is common for a judge to extend a stay until the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair-housing review is complete.

So far the Tyler Arms residents are sticking it out. Workers from the Department of Mental Health came to interview the residents during September, said Stacey, and “the first person they talked to said . . . this is his home and he wasn’t leaving. Right now we’re hoping they don’t have to leave, but the clock’s ticking.”
The coalition is raising money to cover the costs of the lawsuit, and they feel that they have a strong case. In fact, Stacey said the Buffalo office of HUD, which enforces fair-housing law, called him before he could contact them, because the office was concerned about the city’s decision.

The city has until Oct. 22 to respond to the lawsuit; the coalition will then have until Oct. 24 to file its own response. The timeline after that will depend on whether the judge decides to hold a hearing or makes a decision based on the paperwork.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Tests Flunk Test
Independent review panels say the state Regents exams are seriously flawed

The exam system is open for all to inspect,” said New York Commissioner of Education Richard Mills at a public hearing in New York City last month. Earlier in the year, an independent group of evaluators took advantage of that openness to examine the Regents exams, and they didn’t like what they found.

Under the current system, last revised in 1998, students must pass five Regents exams to graduate high school, something no other state requires. Some contend this is a partial cause of New York state’s low graduation rate, the sixth worst in the country. “We have a system where if you fail a single test, that means you will not graduate from high school. That’s really high stakes,” said Ann Cook, a New York City educator and cofounder of Time Out From Testing.

Over the summer, TOFT and the Center for Inquiry organized five panels of educators, journalists, college-admissions officers, and state legislative staff to review four of the Regents subject exams. The panels assessed the exams on many fronts, including accuracy of content, scoring procedures, and quality of student response. Panelists also took portions of the tests.

The result? The panels were appalled. Their findings slammed the exams for being mal-aligned with the state’s professed standards, historically inaccurate, and poor measures of college preparedness.

The panel that looked at the global- and American-history exam, for example, characterized the multiple-choice section as a combination of “the trivial, the self-evident, and the inaccurate” and said the document-based questions showed “a supreme level of vapidity.” The report on global history and geography said the exam used “paltry documents” and asked questions “demanding a simplistic response.” “We can attest that it’s not a high-flying standard; it’s not even a true standard,” the review of the English language arts test reported; it also offered biting advice to students and teachers, including, “Do not attempt to write an original essay. . . . You can feel smart for having wasted no time reflecting on the literature selections.”

“We’re holding students in the state of New York hostage to a completely ill-conceived, mismanaged and misguided system of assessment,” said Cook.
TOFT’s reports come on the heels of a critical report from a state-appointed committee on the Regents Math A exam. The math test has come under fire since June, when Commissioner Mills expunged the results of the test because about two-thirds of the state’s students failed it. The state education department said it will keep its lowered passing standard of 55 percent as an option for schools needing to dramatically improve their graduation rates, but will raise it to 65 in two years. But critics of the Regents exams say that lowering the standard does not treat the problems with the test.

Cook pointed out that the state’s important quest for standards has had some unintended consequences. “Most of the kids who are doing poorly on these tests are . . . kids who go to schools in the poorest communities,” she said, “and in the big cities those are minority kids.” These schools are desperate to raise their graduation rates, and devote the most time, energy, and teaching to “test-oriented” activities. Cook said this dumbs down the curriculum and deprives students of “an enriched experience,” ironically contributing to higher dropout rates and lower scores. Last year, 49 percent of African-American students in Albany did not pass the English-language arts exam, compared to 20 percent of white students.

At the public hearing in September, Commissioner Mills emphasized that the Regents have been “very flexible” and lenient regarding the exam, allowing multiple retakes and translations, and creating alternative exams.

Mills also insisted that the Regents exam process is “not about teaching to the test. It is about improving schools’ focus on leadership, instruction, curriculum, extra help, and fundamentals of reading, mathematics, writing and other strategies that parents expect for their children. . . . With the tests, we identified schools farthest from the standard and have compelled those schools to improve or close.”
Many agree with the commissioner that testing increases accountability and therefore educational quality. But others complain that the tests only measure test-taking ability. To Cook, “the idea that this is to raise standards, whatever that means, is laughable.” She said test scores are malleable if kids learn test-taking strategies, which can push some students over the passing mark without proving that they’ve learned anything.

“We’re so focused on these testing things, that we’ve lost sight of what the whole purpose of the skill is,” said Cook. “That’s where we’re failing.”

Groups like Time Out From Testing claim assessments based on in-depth projects in core subject areas are more accurate measures of learning and college preparedness. Proposals from a state-appointed Council on Curriculum and Assessment to institute that kind of assessment were accepted by New York in the mid-’90s under the previous commissioner of education.

Cook hopes that her group’s new reports will prompt the Regents and Legislature to take up the issue again and “craft an accountability system that is pro-child, not pro-test.”

—Ashley Hahn

Trail Mix : Schenectady Scuffling

Republican Peter Guidarelli (L); Democrat Brian Stratton (R).

Mayoral candidates Brian Stratton and Peter Guidarelli both believe Schenectady needs a change and emphasize their bipartisan work. However, their major themes and supporters line up neatly along traditional party lines.

Guidarelli, a Republican endorsed by the Conservative and Independence parties, is emphasizing his business experience. Stratton, a Democrat endorsed by the Working Families Party, is emphasizing his experience and a commitment to restoring good government.

“For eight years the incumbent administration has stumbled from dishonor to discredit to disgrace,” said Stratton in his March announcement of his candidacy. He wants to get the city’s house in order as a first step to attracting more private business and jobs. To do this, Stratton envisions a public-private “blue ribbon panel of financial experts” to advise the city, and a management audit by the municipal support division of the state comptroller’s office. “We need to find out what is being spent, why it’s being spent, what we’re getting for it,” he said, so the city can stop the “misdirecting of our resources.”

Guidarelli counters that his experience growing his family’s small business is what the city needs, not a “career politician.” “The city is nothing more than a compilation of many small businesses,” he said. “Each department is a small business—parks, public works, finance. . . . My strategy is you break down each department into assets and liabilities.” Stratton, Guidarelli said, “has played an influential role on 11 of the last 12 budgets in the city. . . . He claims it’s been years of disgrace, yet he fails to acknowledge that he was part of it.” Stratton served on the city council from 1991 to 2000, when he won a seat in the county legislature.

Stratton chuckles at the career-politician charge. “He’s been in office almost as long as I have,” he said. “He has 10 years, I have 12. I hardly call that being an outsider.” Guidarelli served a partial term on the city council from 1993-94 and then went on to the county legislature, becoming the chair in 2002. As for running the government like a business, Stratton is skeptical. “That was a claim made by the incumbent mayor,” he said. “If we truly ran the city like a business we wouldn’t be providing services, because we’d be driven by a need to make a profit. We’d have to lay off half our employees, stop collecting garbage and go to a volunteer fire department.”

Stratton does, however, focus on working people and jobs. He has not only endorsements, but very active support, from the Capital District Area Labor Federation and many individual unions, including GE’s Local 301, which hasn’t endorsed a mayoral candidate since the early 1960s. “Brian’s not only done what’s expected of a legislator in terms of lobbying for pro-worker and pro-job legislation,” explained Kathleen Scales of the Labor Federation, “but Brian also is there for us supporting us in contract fights” and on the picket lines.

“He’s really been there for working people,” agrees Keri Kresler, lead organizer for the Working Families party in the Capital Region. “It’s really not very common for [labor to throw] so much support behind a local candidate.”

Schenectady is still reeling from its eighth homicide this year, so it’s no surprise that public safety rises to the top of the list of issues. Guidarelli has proposed consolidating the city and county lockup to free up six more officers for street patrols, and thinks private businesses in downtown should be hiring off-duty police and private security officers. He has criticized Stratton for inaction during his tenure as chair of the Public Safety Committee from 1997 to 2000. Kathleen Lisson, a Republican committee member from the Stockade, said the fact that the Police Benevolent Association is supporting Guidarelli is enough to convince her that he is the better public-safety candidate.

Stratton counters that he is “proud of his record,” on which his opponent is “misinformed.” He said that during his tenure on the Public Safety Committee, funding increased 43 percent, he led the investigations of corruption in the police department, and brought in state troopers (who were “warmly welcomed”) to support local police after a rash of drug-related gun violence. He also recently formed a task force on violence and schools. Stratton is a vocal proponent of putting all police resources toward street patrols, rather than things like seat-belt checks. “I’m not a police professional,” said Stratton. “I’m just using common sense, and common sense tells you where you should be during a high crime period.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Trail Mix : The Lines, They Are a-Changin’

A Democrat in other parties’ clothes: Cathy Collington, candidate for Troy City Council in District 4.

Two Democrats are facing off in the general election for Troy’s Fourth District City Council seat.

Cathy Collington, a lifelong Democrat and former city clerk, has crossed party lines to run on the Republican, Working Families, Conservative and Independence party lines. Her opponent, Bill Dunne, is the endorsed Democratic candidate.

Collington said she was interested in running and felt that the time was right, but the Democratic committee people had already picked Bill Dunne as their candidate, without interviewing her. “It wasn’t any knockdown, drag out, or anything exciting,” she said.
The Republican Party learned of Collington’s interest in running, approached her, and in the end offered her their endorsement.
“Her values, her enterprise, her energy, her accomplishments are identical to what we’re trying to promote,” said Jack Casey, chairman of the Rensselaer County Republican Committee, touting her governmental experience and her involvement in a wide range of groups including Citizen Action of New York and the NAACP. Casey said Collington’s party registration will be switched after the election.
Collington said it’s not she who has changed but the people and the political climate. She said she shares some of the same concerns about the city’s needs with Troy’s Republicans.

“Quality-of-life issues are the same no matter which party you’re in,” Collington said. “I’m not a rubber-stamp person—they all know that.”

To Collington, the current city council “does not reflect the diverse population of the city,” and she believes African-Americans need “to take responsibility for ourselves.”

Collington’s party jump is still somewhat unusual, as are her mix of endorsements—Working Families, especially, is much more often aligned with Democratic candidates. But according to Keri Kresler, lead organizer for the Working Families Party, “you don’t see a really strong ideology” in Rensselaer County. “People switch or run on different lines all of the time.”

“You have to be mindful of who you’re voting for. . . and that person’s values, and if they’re in line with what’s needed,” said Collington, whose campaign slogan is “People Not Politics.”

The cross-endorsements in Troy echo the strong interest in relatively small lines in many local elections this year. Democrats in Stillwater and Saratoga Springs, for example, fought tight primaries over Conservative Party endorsements last month. [Trail Mix, Sept. 25]

Many candidates seek these extra lines because they feel that close elections mean they have to get votes from every possible interested group. The race between Cathy Collington and Bill Dunne is no exception. Collington said the result won’t be about who’s the better candidate, but about “getting the voters out.”

As of April 2003, there were 7,545 registered Democrats and 4,974 Republicans in Troy. The Working Families Party accounted for 374 registered voters, and the Conservative Party had 1,538.

In contrast, there are almost 8,000 voters in Troy who are not registered with a party. Rensselaer County is one of only two counties in the state where there are more people registered without a party than in the two major parties, said Kresler, “so those minor party lines really make a huge difference.”

“Especially upstate, there are a lot more people looking for an alternative to pulling that Democrat or Republican lever,” said Kresler. The extra lines give “people an option of voting for a candidate, and then sending a message . . . as to why you actually voted that way.”

—Ashley Hahn



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