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To Protect, Serve, and Earn Your Trust
A range of creative policing and prosecution initiatives have been stirring up hope in Arbor Hill- and residents hope they'll survive the APD's leadership transition.

By Miriam Axel-Lute

As John Crossman walks the streets of his beat in Albany’s Arbor Hill, he has something to say about almost every house. How long that one’s been abandoned, when that one was torn down, who lives there, the best vantage point for spying on drug deals on that one’s porch. He knows this area—where he grew up and where he’s been the beat officer since 2002—better than most people ever get to know any place. He notes all the details. Entering one of the more than 80 abandoned buildings in the neighborhood, he scans a mildew-infested room full of plumbing parts, old bicycles and refuse, and points to a bottle of pink cleaning fluid in one corner: “That’s new” he says. Walking up Ten Broeck Place, he pauses to pick up a piece of paper; it turns out to be a grocery list, but “you never know what you’ll find out by picking things up,” he says.

Beat officers, also known as outreach officers, are a key component of the Albany Police Department’s community policing strategy as introduced in the mid-1990s. There are 15 in the city, the only officers who are assigned to constant and small geographic areas. They operate on foot or by bicycle and are usually exempted from answering calls for service: Their job is to get to know the neighborhood, meet people, and address quality-of-life concerns.

On the day we were out walking, Crossman was still suspended from the force; he had been since October, over an incident involving forgetting to put his safety goggles on at the firing range. At least that’s what others say happened. Unsurprisingly, as the case was still in arbitration, Crossman wouldn’t talk about it. (He returned to work last week.) But he was happy to talk about the beat where he’d been for the past two years. He clearly missed walking the streets, and stopped frequently to talk to the folks he saw.

“Did you get that open-container thing cleared up?” he asks one man sitting on a stoop on North Swan Street. On St. Josephs Terrace, he stops to chat with a homeowner about the transformation of a problem property next door. At the end of Colonie Street, he points out where he got the Department of General Services to prune or remove trees and bushes that had been providing an escape route to the dealers.

When he was first assigned to this beat, the area was a “combat zone,” recalls Crossman. There was a revolving door, where offenders were getting probation or a fine and heading right back out on the street. He was busy making a name for himself, he says, but at first it didn’t feel like the neighborhood was changing very much.

But Crossman had arrived in Arbor Hill at a good time. Two other forces—the district attorney’s office’s Community Prosecution Initiative and the innovative outreach work of Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro—were about to come together to give the work that he and other officers were doing a boost that would take it to a new level of success and community buy-in. Now, almost two years later, the community that bought into that work is hoping the commitment it felt will survive the personnel shuffles and other crises facing the APD.

Trust in the police and the criminal justice system had long been hit-or-miss at best in Arbor Hill and neighboring West Hill, according to many residents. When Lee Ann Paeglow, now president of the West Hill Neighborhood Association, arrived in West Hill, she “got the idea that it wasn’t that good of a relationship. The police were the bad guys, you’d call them and they wouldn’t show up, or they would take their time. It’s understandable sometimes—things have to be prioritized, but you have to know they care too. As an outsider coming in, we knew they were there to serve and protect, but you got the sense that even the good people in the community were a little leery.”

Watching the neighborhood: Arbor Hill resident Barbara Smith at the Livingston Avenue tulip garden.Photo by: John Whipple

Some of that distrust has deep roots among African-American residents, even if they haven’t had specific bad experiences. Barbara Smith, a nationally known author and longtime Arbor Hill resident, remembers, “When I was growing up in the 1940s to ’60s in Cleveland, my law-abiding family never told me and my sister that if we were in trouble we should seek a policeman. They told us instead, find a black lady and talk to her.” She notes that for many years she was super careful to avoid any interaction with law-enforcement—for example, she never speeds—not because she had anything to hide, but because she felt vulnerable as an African-American.

But these perceptions began to change somewhat throughout Arbor Hill and West Hill over the past couple of years. The turning point for Smith, and for many other residents, was working with D’Alessandro, who was the commander at North Station from May 2002 until fall 2003.

D’Alessandro, who says he was not a community policing expert when he was assigned to District 2 but that “you learn from the community,” describes his initial approach as “spending time with [residents] other than when problems arise, whether it was block parties, community gardens, cleanups, celebrations or sorrows. Being seen as a real person, and seeing them as real people rather than a community requesting services.”

D’Alessandro became nearly ubiquitous. He attended Bible study groups and prayer marches, neighborhood meetings and block parties. He brought his family to church services and community gatherings. He began walking the streets regularly, meeting as many people as he could. The number of people he got to know is evident today: When he walks into a community meeting, a neighborhood lunch spot, or down Clinton Avenue, people of all ages and colors greet him with a hug and ask when he’ll be back on the street.

D’Alessandro and Assistant District Attorney David Soares “went door-to-door and they asked for the people’s needs and hopes,” says Jestin Williams, a 41-year resident of Arbor Hill who worked actively with both of them. They would sit in people’s living rooms to talk, says Williams, and the atmosphere was “like a family gathering.”

The Rev. Beresford E. Bailey of Star Bethlehem Church says that D’Alessandro brought to a climax good work that had begun with the introduction of beat officers, a process of police and community residents learning to see each other as human beings. “He was a high-ranking official, walking the streets with the average joe, talking to people on the corner,” he says. “To my knowledge it was the first time that a high-ranking official was on the street like an ordinary guy. . . . The community got to see him in so many different caps: Not only was he an officer, they would see him in his jeans and sneakers, like they were.”

D’Alessandro “really had the big picture,” says Smith. “He also had the people skills and temperament to work with communities that have diverse populations.” He is, she added, one of those rare people who is not only committed to racial equality in theory, but is “great at demonstrating how to do it.”

Smith’s favorite story about the quality of her interactions with D’Alessandro is the time she was planting flowers in her front yard, a leap of faith in the face of sporadic vandalism. As she planted, a car pulled into her driveway, with a teenage boy in the passenger side. After a moment’s apprehension, she saw D’Alessandro get out the other side. He was traveling with his son to a neighborhood event, and told her, “ ‘I just had to stop and say how happy I was to see you planting flowers out here,’ ” she remembers. “Every time I looked at them, I thought of the time a police commander stopped and said how wonderful it is you’re doing that.”

Arbor Hill muralist-activist Yacob Williams also felt more comfortable after getting to know D’Alessandro. “It was a relief for me to know when I got a call from my son and he’s crying that the police are harassing him, that Chris D’Alessandro was just leaving my office,” he says, reporting that D’Alessandro was able to head over to the incident and resolve it.

Jestin Williams says this extensive outreach created a demonstrable increase in involvement of residents in public safety and quality-of-life issues. Smith, for example, says her relationship with the police underwent “a real transformation” over the course of the past year. “I have found there are people who are doing the job of policeman, a very hard job, and doing it for the right reasons,” she says. Never much involved at the neighborhood level before, she is currently organizing neighborhood watches through the Arbor Hill Quality of Life Committee.

All of these people are quick to add that the beat officers, community services officers, and patrolmen were and are also doing good work. But the combination of autonomy and authority D’Alessandro brought as a commander was able to tie efforts together on an unprecedented scale. As longtime neighborhood activist Helen Black says, “he had the rank and took the risk.”

“I know [community policing] is not just one person,” says Paeglow, “but he was one person who represented the police consistently,” communicating both the community’s needs to the department, and the department’s needs and procedures to the community.

Speaking at a Council of Churches Social Justice Forum on April 13, D’Alessandro noted that leadership can be summed up in one word: trust. “Are residents comfortable talking to officers, or do crimes go unreported? Do they know officers’ names or have special names for them?” he asked. Then he turned the question around the other way as well—“Do the police trust the community? Do they feel their enforcement actions are backed up?”

That concern was behind the Arbor Hill Public Safety Declaration, a project of the Quality of Life Committee (originally called the Public Safety Committee), which was spun off the Arbor Hill Planning process. Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen nominated D’Alessandro to head that committee in spring 2003. D’Alessandro says his goal with the declaration was to have community members figure out what their top problems were, and endorse police action to address them. “Often the police, thinking they’re responding to a request, use an enforcement action that offends the community,” explains D’Alessandro. In fact, a wariness born of experiences like these could be seen at a recent neighborhood-watch meeting at which APD Chief James Turley warned those present that if the police took action on some of the quality-of-life concerns that were being raised, relatives or friends might get caught up in that action, and they should be prepared.

Instead, says D’Alessandro, he wanted to “show my officers, ‘Look, we’ve got hundreds of people who are advocating for what you want to do.’ ” The declaration, which is still making the rounds, has more than 250 signatures.

The next logical step for community policing, says D’Alessandro, is to not only come to the neighborhood residents to ask about problems, but to involve them in brainstorming solutions and critiquing enforcement actions. That way, if someone does take offense, you know you have community support.

And community support was certainly D’Alessandro’s strong suit. “He’s an outstanding police officer,” says Jestin Williams. “He brought something spiritual to the table.”

The other stream that fed into the Arbor Hill and West Hill improvements was the Community Prosecution Initiative, which brought the courts into close collaboration with community policing.

Albany’s Community Prosecution Initiative got off to a rocky start. The grant that funds it was originally written by Isla Roona of the Social Capital Development Corporation, with the district attorney’s office as the sponsoring agency. SCDC was to implement the program, using a technique called restorative justice conferencing, but after a year there were huge differences between Roona and the DA’s office over how broad the program should be, what cases should be sent to it, and whether it was working. The DA’s office ended its relationship with SCDC partway through the grant; Roona is suing DA Paul Clyne for breach of contract.

But the DA’s office didn’t end the program entirely. Instead, Clyne sent assistant DA David Soares to a federal community prosecution conference in South Carolina in March 2002. Hearing the success stories from around the country made Soares a true believer. He says he had his “eyes opened” that “we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of a social crisis.” Instead, he says, we need to involve everyone who has a stake in the neighborhood, from residents to landlords to the numerous government agencies that work with people in these neighborhoods.

According to the American Prosecutors Research Institute, community prosecution inovlves a “long-term pro-active partnership” between a prosecutor’s office and other neighbrhood stakeholders (much like community policing), based in a recognition that crime prevention needs to be added to the concerns of prosecutors’ offices.

Soares came back enthusiastic to try the model out on “the worst area of the city, which at that time was Colonie Street.” He didn’t want to promise more than he could deliver, so he decided to focus narrowly, on Beat 142, which is bounded by Clinton Avenue, Henry Johnson Boulevard, Ten Broeck Street and Colonie Street.

One of his first steps was to relocate from the courthouse to a basement office on Clinton Avenue, which he shared with Crossman. The office was shabby, low-tech, and furnished almost entirely with donations, but, Soares says, “Now I’m here, and I can see what’s going on in the street.”

D’Alessandro, who had just recently been assigned to the area, reached out to him and they began walking the streets together, gathering data, meeting people, and getting the lay of the land. With the help of Crossman and other officers, Soares began mapping out the area, plotting the location of everything from abandoned buildings and vacant lots to parolees and probationers, people on DSS, and licensed dogs. Then they began to use this information to connect the various agencies involved, so beat officers would know parolees’ conditions of release, for example, and work with the parole officers. Or they would collaborate with the housing authority, DGS, codes or the fire department to get problem buildings under control. Sometimes another agency wasn’t even required, says Soares, who would himself occasionally call landlords about things like a missing stair rail or confront tenants about garbage bags they were throwing in another yard.

Out of the courthouse, into the neighborhood: Soares with young friends from Arbor Hill. Photo by: John Whipple

Working with multiple stakeholders and getting lots of agencies involved is directly in line with the APD’s “whole house” approach—and with Soares, D’Alessandro, and local patrolmen and beat officers all focusing strategically on one area, the promise of that approach was able to shine.

The idea is being creative, says Soares, who is full of ideas he’d love to do next (or with more resources). For example, he says, what if you have people grilling on the sidewalk, causing problems for their neighbors? “People gotta grill, people gotta eat,” he notes; the real problem is buildings that are designed so only the basement apartments have backyard access. “So what do you do? In the nearby vacant lot, you put a couple grills. Only don’t put them there, give [the residents] the resources and let them put it there,” he says.

Community prosecution also involved more active collaboration with patrolmen. Repeat offenders constantly pleading out or getting fines and returning to the streets had been hard on the officers’ morale, says Soares. But as he walked the community more often and got a more intimate sense of what was going on, he began to innovate, adding bail conditions such as “cannot return to Colonie Street,” for offenders picked up somewhere they didn’t live. Then he would tell D’Alessandro, who let the patrolmen know of that condition. “It was creating more excitement with guys out on the street,” recalls Soares. “Now you’re not just looking at a piece of paper and a file. You don’t wait for things to happen, you go out and attack it.”

A centerpiece of the community prosecution initiative is the Community Accountability Board, a jail diversion. Minor offenders are diverted from the court system to the board, which is composed of community members; in many cases they know the offender or the offender’s family. Sitting around a table in the Arbor Hill Community Center conference room every Thursday night, away from the trappings of a court or people in uniform, board members talk firmly but kindly with offenders about why they did what they did and how it affected the community, and then they assign some sort of restitution. Often this includes a giving-back-to-the-community component—cleaning up a basketball court on the same block where they were dealing drugs, for example—as well as a getting-their-lives-together component—such as taking steps toward a job or getting counseling. The board has even been known to assign 40 hours community service to “take care of yourself” to one stressed-out mother.

Terry O’Neill, a C.A.B. member with a longtime association with law enforcement (among other things he helped create the voluntary accreditation program for New York state police departments), describes the board’s process as, “We meet the minor offender, find out who their families are, why they’re in trouble, and welcome them back into the community. . . . We confront them and say we don’t want to send them off to state prison, but they need to recognize they’ve been reducing the quality of life in their community.”

“They had to face their neighbors, and their neighbors were able to pull the best out of them,” says the Rev. Bailey, also a board member. “I have seen quite a few young people who’ve turned their lives around.”

“You get to meet these people on a different level because it’s not confrontational, they know you’re not trying to hurt them,” says Soares. “But at the same time they respect you, they know that if they screw up it’s going to be they way it was,” i.e., back to the traditional criminal justice system. For a small-time drug dealer or pot smoker, he says, “another trip to the Albany County jail isn’t going to [do much], but bring him in here, and put a vest on him, put a broom in his hand, and have him clean the basketball court on the same block on which he was dealing,” and you’ve reconnected him to the community. “As long as you make it that they’re cleaning it for some kid, they can identify with that. I tell you, 85 percent of them, they clean [what they were assigned] and move on to something else; you don’t have to tell them.”

The successes are small, but make an impression. Amanda Paeglow, who works for the community prosecution office, tells of one person who had completed his community service, but showed up at the office on a subsequent weekend asking if there was a project he could help with, so he wouldn’t be at loose ends on the street. Soares describes the elation of a man who had been homeless since 1995 who finally, after weeks of work with the community prosecution office, tracked down enough ID to get connected with Medicaid and get his driver’s license. “It was nothing, picking up the file and saying, uh, Community Accountability Board for this one,” says Soares. “But for this guy now he’s got the hammer over his head to do something, and he does it, and now he’s on top of the world.”

Though the original grant runs out at the end of the year, Clyne says the program will continue. “From what I can tell it’s been well received in the neighborhoods that it’s operating in,” he says. “We’re going to keep it going because we think it has some value.”

By summer 2003, all these pieces had been in place long enough to take root and start to have a cumulative effect. The stepped-up collaboration, the accountability board, the increased trust and communication with the police (and among neighbors) made summer 2003 a highlight in many residents’ minds.

Action on problem properties began to bear fruit. A Community Police Van championed by D’Alessandro, and staffed using Local Law Enforcement Block Grant money, parked for a long weekend to a week at a time at various trouble spots. D’Alessandro says people started to tell him they’d had their first uninterrupted night of sleep while the van was there, or that their kids played safely on the street for the first time. Neighbors lined up to request the van on their block, or to request it back. Letters came pouring in to the city in support, and resident Helen Black recalls Mayor Jerry Jennings telling her he wished there could be more of them.

“I’ve seen a tremendous turnaround,” says Bailey. “It reached a climax where residents were getting confidence and faith in the police that they were not there to harass and arrest. The fruition of this came to its max in 2003.”

“What a difference a year of authentic community policing made,” recalls Black. “It was a new season of hope for Arbor Hill.”

But that fall began a series of shakeups at the APD whose repercussions made many residents fear for the progress they’d gained. The mobile police van was canceled, ostensibly for lack of funding. D’Alessandro was assigned to desk duty (according to one insider, his community outreach work was keeping administrative work from getting done), and then fired in January allegedly over a derogatory flier [“Commander, You’re Fired,” Newsfront, Feb. 12]. Officer Crossman was suspended around the same time D’Alessandro was reassigned, and it took many months before temporary beat officers were assigned. Most residents were quite happy with the new beat officers, especially the most recent one, but as Black notes, on 30-day temporary assignments the replacements were never able to develop the detailed knowledge of the area that Crossman had had. Without a regular beat officer or D’Alessandro’s constant support, the Community Prosecution Initiative’s efforts became more isolated and slower going.

“With the recent upheaval, I think morale is lower than it could be,” says Paeglow.

“We’ve lost the whole summer,” says Black. “Not that nothing good can happen, but you use the winter to prepare, and that’s been lost.”

The outrage from the community about D’Alessandro’s firing, compounded by concern over the shooting of David Scaringe and questions that arose about finances and overtime spending in the police department, added tensions between some outspoken residents and the APD brass, especially former Chief Robert Wolfgang and Commissioner Nielsen, who accused them of being destructive dissidents [“On the Defensive,” Newsfront, March 18, and “The Whole Truth?,” Newsfront, March 25]. Many of these issues remain unresolved, and a citywide group called the Coalition for Accountable Police and Government has formed to keep the pressure on the city to come up with acceptable answers.

But there have also been other changes at the APD. Wolfgang retired on April 4, and has been replaced by former Deputy Chief Turley. Three assistant chief positions were created, including assistant chief in charge of patrol, which has been filled by Anthony Bruno. The two district commanders have been replaced by four lieutenants, whom the chief hopes will be able to connect with the community in much the way D’Alessandro did.

As with any new administration, these new leaders are trying very hard to keep a distance from past controversy and focus on the positive. Reports have been made in the Times Union (“Inside Politics,” May 7) about overtures to D’Alessandro, and Turley and Bruno have been making the rounds to neighborhood associations, encouraging everyone to focus on the good stuff.

When it comes to community policing, Turley and Bruno say they are strongly committed to the sorts of creative efforts that have been happening in Arbor Hill, though they prefer to call it problem- solving or problem-oriented policing. “The name community policing has gotten stale, and people are really tired of hearing about it,” says Turley. “I think some people are dissatisfied with what it appears to be.”

Whatever Turley and Bruno call it, many of the ideas they profess are right in line with what the community has come to expect. “What I would propose that we do is we meet with neighbors, neighborhood groups, interested parties, and discuss their particular problems and we work with them on solutions for their problems, with their input,” explains Turley.

Turley is a strong proponent of both the “public safety concept,” which was started three years ago when the police, fire, and buildings and codes were put together in one building under one commissioner, and the related “whole house” concept, where calls for service or problems at a particular property are looked at as a whole and departments like codes and DSS are brought in for the solution. “We go to neighborhood meetings, and probably 80-90 percent of the complaints are DGS [Department of General Services] and code-related,” says Turley.

Both he and Bruno say they walk the streets themselves several hours every day, attend neighborhood meetings, and listen to the residents’ concerns.

Bruno emphasizes follow-through and finding the root cause of the problem as the most important aspects of problem- oriented policing. “I can send officers out every day to pick up trash on a street, and the next day there’ll be trash on the street until we find out what’s the root cause of that being there,” he explains, noting that when beat officers fill out forms reporting problems to other agencies, the department has also made it their responsibility to follow up and see that the problems are corrected.

The new leadership is also a strong proponent of the community prosecution approach and the C.A.B. Though they haven’t been closely involved with it as of yet, Bruno echoes Soares when he says the board is important because “jail is only a temporary solution.”

“What I would propose and enjoy is that that style of community prosecution be extended throughout the city,” adds Turley. “I think it’s a wonderful program.”

Only time will tell, however, if the delicate balance of relationships and trust that had been forged in Arbor Hill will continue. Turley and Bruno are clearly uncomfortable with the idea that the police may not start out with everyone’s trust. “It’s a perception that’s had by many,” responds Turley, somewhat defensively, when asked about plans to address any mistrust that’s there. “I would first ask that we, the administration, the police department, and the officers be given the opportunity or the chance to build that trust.”

They also seem a little frustrated, even hurt, at the attention that has been given to D’Alessandro. “The other officers that have relationships [with residents], they should be given a chance [as well],” says Turley. Nonetheless, he says that D’Alessandro’s approach to building relationships is “what I want all our police officers to do.”

The residents who have been active in community policing and prosecution in Arbor Hill and West Hill certainly don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although many say D’Alessandro will be nearly impossible to replace, they still have every intention of continuing to work together with the police department. “There has been a little bit of slowdown recently, but I have faith,” says Bailey. “We’ve had a taste of change, we’ve seen the difference, we’ve see the revitalization of our community. No way in the world we’re going to sit back and see it slip back. Over my dead body.”

Smith is forging ahead, helping to organize not only her block, but neighborhood watches throughout Arbor Hill and West Hill. Though she is active with the group that is asking questions about D’Alessandro’s firing, she is making no prejudgments about the new leadership at the department. “I just want to see if they are going to rise to the legacy of effective community policing in Arbor Hill,” she says. “That’s what everybody is waiting to see. Are they going to step up to the progress that was made?”

Smith is so far encouraged by her first meeting to discuss neighborhood watches, held on May 4, and attended by Turley, Bruno, two community-services officers, and several local patrolmen and beat officers. “I felt really very pleased that there was such a good turnout,” she says. “I think we have made a good start, and we can accomplish a lot working together.”

“We think it’s important,” adds Yacob Williams, “that the new people in those roles are comfortable with us.”

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