HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

OPINIONS, ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION OF ISSUES CONFRONTING US IN OUR TIMES
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HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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NATIONAL COPS EVALUATION ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE CASE STUDY: Albany, New York

David Thacher
Research Associate
Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

Case Study Prepared for the Urban Institute

Introduction


Albany, New York is a city of just over 100,000 residents and a rich political history.

Though it has been the state capital since 1797, it is Albany’s local politics that have truly distinguished the city: Albany hosted the most enduring political machine in modern American history, one that kept a strong hold over most city affairs well into the 1970s and even the early 1980s.


But towards the end of this period the party’s hold on civic affairs began to weaken: Although Democratic voters still outnumber Republicans better than 10-to-1 in Albany, the Democratic organization no longer holds the iron grip on power that it once held, and today party leaders share power with employee unions, neighborhood groups, civil service boards, and independent administrators.

The Albany Police Department has evolved over the past two decades in response to these changes, and recent reforms labeled “community policing” have played a part in that evolution.

In some ways, community policing has meant a return to the past in Albany: Well into the 1980s, local police maintained a neighborhood-oriented force that emphasized foot patrol, and it was not until reform Mayor Thomas Whalen cut department staffing radically — from a patronage-swollen 415 in the 1970s to 300 by 1993 — that the APD shut down its popular neighborhood substations.

In part, community policing simply reversed these recent reforms by re-instituting foot patrol and by promising to re-open neighborhood substations.

But it also promised the city something different: Whereas in the past local police had taken guidance mostly from the formal political system, under community policing they pledged to listen to Albany’s newly-powerful neighborhood and business groups, and also to unorganized residents.


This case study chronicles the history of the APD community policing efforts in three stages.

Section I sets the context for change by reviewing the recent history of Albany’s police and its government more generally.

Section two, the heart of the study, then chronicles the reforms of the past four years in some detail, focusing on the strategies APD administrators and others used to put community policing in place.

Section three then sums up the consequences of change by briefly reviewing how the APD operates today.

TO BE CONTINUED ...
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

1. Relationship to the Environment


All public agencies submit to some form of public oversight, often distributed among elected officials, public-minded professionals, community groups, and administrative law.

But in the decades leading up to community policing, what was distinctive about the Albany Police Department was the degree to which this oversight was informally centralized in the hands of local politicians.


The near monopoly of control that elected officials held over city agencies began to weaken in the 1980s, but many observers maintain that up until the 1970s, Albany government was firmly in the hands of a unified Democratic machine.

The Albany County Democratic Committee is the stuff of legends.

Presided over for some five decades by party leader Dan O’Connell, Albany Democrats held tight control over everything from elections, to taxes, to the criminal justice system, using their influence over those spheres to earn loyalty and maintain their hold on power.


Though a few veteran city officials downplay the influence of the machine, most report that as late as the early 1980s, the party’s appointed ward leaders held sway over many important decisions — including where code inspections would be made, whether or not the city would collect on a parking ticket, and who the police department would hire and promote (civil service tests were widely considered toothless in Albany, one of the few large cities in New York to administer the test locally, and the state repeatedly admonished city officials for lax administration of hiring regulations).

Indeed, the special role of jobs in the patronage system led to an enlarged police department of some 415 officers in the 1970s, when LEAA funds boosted APD staffing considerably. 1

Ward leaders, of course, did not exercise their influence independently.

O’Connell and Albany Mayor Erastus Corning — whose 42-year tenure made him the longest-serving mayor in America — exercised strong discipline over party members: Well into the 1970s, it was highly unusual for any political position to be contested within the Democratic party, and to win the Democrats’ endorsement meant certain victory in open elections.

(Even in 1985, after the machine’s inexorable decline had taken root, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 16 to 1 in Albany.)

Indeed, “loyalty” has long been the watchword of Albany politics, 2 and observers both credit it with making the system work and blame it for making it unbearable.

On the one hand, loyal party members — even those of the most modest means — could often expect immediate responses when they brought neighborhood or personal problems to the attention of their ward leaders, who gave Albany government a strong neighborhood focus that so-called “professional” city halls around the country could rarely match.

On the other hand, dissent was not welcome in Albany, and those who sought to organize their own power bases met with stiff resistance.


One example of this dynamic comes from repeated attempts by police to unionize, which did not succeed until the mid-1970s after a bitter fight with the Corning administration.

Another example emerged during the same period as neighborhood associations began to form in the city: Many observers report that Corning fought the groups and their proposals every step of the way, seeing them as an affront to the consolidated power of the political machine. 3

Finally, Corning also resisted organizing attempts in Albany’s black community, which was scantly represented in the Democratic Committee.

Indeed, Albany blacks have long had a contentious relationship with city hall — particularly the police department, which faced widespread accusations of brutality towards African-Americans.


TO BE CONTINUED ....
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

1. Relationship to the Environment
, continued ...

These various organizing attempts presaged the machine’s gradual unraveling, which was punctuated by the deaths of O’Connell in 1977 and Corning in 1983.

Corning was succeeded by Thomas Whalen, who at the time was the president of the city’s Common Council and had been hand-picked by Corning himself as his successor.

Initially viewed as a Democratic loyalist who would simply continue with the status quo, 4 Whalen turned out to be something of a reformer.

Even before taking charge of the city, he had felt that voters simply would not accept the “bare-knuckles” strategies of the past, 5 and two structural problems apparently encouraged his reformist bent.

First of all, the tight link between the mayoralty and the County Democratic Committee died along with Corning, who left the mayor’s job to Whalen but the chairmanship of the Committee to a longtime party member named Leo O’Brien — a division that broke the machine lifeline connecting voters to city services.

Second, years of patronage had swollen the city’s budget, to the point that Corning had allegedly begun borrowing to finance regular operating expenses (an illegal practice supported, again allegedly, by questionable accounting).

As Whalen quickly recognized, the already-decaying city simply could not afford the old strategies of patronage.


Whatever the reasons, Whalen gradually extricated city government from the Democratic Committee and its offshoots, selling the water system to an autonomous agency, ending most no-bid contracts, and embarking on a massive enterprise to rationalize the city’s finances.

At the same time, Whalen cultivated a relationship with the growing movement of neighborhood associations, which gradually began to displace ward leaders as shareholders in some city decision-making.

The new Mayor’s supporters trumpeted his efforts as a professionalization of city government that had started to undo the damage done by decades of backwards politics — which, they argued, had left the city’s downtown in disarray, undermined effective service delivery, and destroyed city hall’s legitimacy.

But opponents accused the new mayor of elitism and of catering to the wealthy and business interests, and many party loyalists treated him as a traitor.

Moreover, some in the police department argue that political influence over policing actually increased under Whalen, who they say took a more direct interest in staffing decisions that Corning ever had, perhaps in order to advance his reforms there.


TO BE CONTINUED ....
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

1. Relationship to the Environment
, concluded ...

Whatever their objective merits, Whalen’s reform efforts touched the police department directly: Believing that patronage had swollen the APD’s ranks, the mayor stopped hiring completely for eight years, closing the department’s two neighborhood substations in the process.

The effort put a serious strain into relationships between city hall and the police — particularly with the increasingly-vocal Police Officer’s Union, which fought Whalen on staffing and other issues for years.


The result was that the Mayor found it difficult to push more substantive reforms: For example, despite four years of efforts to implement community policing towards the end of his tenure, Whalen was only able to establish a marginal special unit, leaving the rest of the department untouched.

Other Whalen-led reforms to areas like internal affairs and minority hiring also led to serious dissent and were never completely implemented (one Chief resigned over disagreements with the Mayor about discipline).

Whalen did influence policing indirectly by encouraging active neighborhood associations (NAs), which began gradually to play more of a role in the APD and other city agencies.

But while police were not exactly antagonistic to these groups (special units like the anti-burglary team and community services reportedly had close relationships with some NAs), they apparently never fully accepted the idea that they should look to the community for guidance about police priorities.


Community activist Harold Rubin recalls an incident that illustrates this idea:

Years and years ago, there was a motorcycle parked on the sidewalk.

Now, a motorcycle in the vehicle and traffic law is listed as a motor vehicle: It’s not supposed to be parked on the sidewalk.

And so I told the cop about this and said, “There’s a motorcycle over here.”

He turned to me and said, “Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?” . . .

He didn’t want to write the ticket for the damn thing.

So instead of going after the motorcycle, which is illegal, he goes after me.

Rubin, whose Center Square neighborhood was the only one with foot patrol in the city after the Arbor Hill and South End substations closed, had perhaps the closest thing to “community policing” that the APD was offering at the time.

Nevertheless, Rubin reports that even the foot patrol officer only occasionally attended association meetings, and that while he was an effective and welcome police presence, “he was not community-oriented.”

TO BE CONTINUED ....
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

1. Relationship to the Environment
, continued ...

Whatever their objective merits, Whalen’s reform efforts touched the police department directly: Believing that patronage had swollen the APD’s ranks, the mayor stopped hiring completely for eight years, closing the department’s two neighborhood substations in the process.

The effort put a serious strain into relationships between city hall and the police — particularly with the increasingly-vocal Police Officer’s Union, which fought Whalen on staffing and other issues for years.


The result was that the Mayor found it difficult to push more substantive reforms: For example, despite four years of efforts to implement community policing towards the end of his tenure, Whalen was only able to establish a marginal special unit, leaving the rest of the department untouched.

Other Whalen-led reforms to areas like internal affairs and minority hiring also led to serious dissent and were never completely implemented (one Chief resigned over disagreements with the Mayor about discipline).

Whalen did influence policing indirectly by encouraging active neighborhood associations (NAs), which began gradually to play more of a role in the APD and other city agencies.

But while police were not exactly antagonistic to these groups (special units like the anti-burglary team and community services reportedly had close relationships with some NAs), they apparently never fully accepted the idea that they should look to the community for guidance about police priorities.


Community activist Harold Rubin recalls an incident that illustrates this idea:

Years and years ago, there was a motorcycle parked on the sidewalk.

Now, a motorcycle in the vehicle and traffic law is listed as a motor vehicle: It’s not supposed to be parked on the sidewalk.

And so I told the cop about this and said, “There’s a motorcycle over here.”

He turned to me and said, “Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?” . . .

He didn’t want to write the ticket for the damn thing.

So instead of going after the motorcycle, which is illegal, he goes after me.

Rubin, whose Center Square neighborhood was the only one with foot patrol in the city after the Arbor Hill and South End substations closed, had perhaps the closest thing to “community policing” that the APD was offering at the time.

Nevertheless, Rubin reports that even the foot patrol officer only occasionally attended association meetings, and that while he was an effective and welcome police presence, “he was not community-oriented.”

TO BE CONTINUED ....
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

1. Relationship to the Environment
, concluded ...

The Task Environment

Until the 1980s, the Democratic organization also influenced the APD’s dealings with other city and county agencies.

In fact, interagency cooperation in this period was apparently reasonably good, as employees of both the police department and their agency partners remember making regular referrals to one another, particularly with regards to problem properties: Since public servants worked as much for ward leaders as they did for their respective agencies, the “barriers” between different agencies were not especially salient.

On the criminal justice side, the APD apparently enjoyed a good relationship with other nearby police agencies and with the County court system, which never faced the crisis of jail space that began to pressure many other U.S. cities.

Some local officials feel that the APD had too little contact with State and Federal law enforcement agencies (both of which participated in investigations against the County Democratic Committee — ranging from the one led by presidential aspirant and New York State Governor Thomas Dewey in the 1940s, to a more recent FBI probe into fundraising practices in the early 1990s). 6

But within the county, at least, some allege that the APD was enmeshed only too well into the machine-controlled criminal justice system, which elected its judges, its county attorneys, and (until 1968) its DA with the blessing of the Democratic Committee. 7

TO BE CONTINUED ....
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

2. Operations


Writing thirty years ago, James Q. Wilson described the Albany Police Department as a “watchman” style department that emphasized serious crimes and the maintenance of public order, paying less attention to minor violations like traffic offenses, gambling, and other misdemeanors.

Many department veterans today insist that this policing style dominated the department well into the 1980s.


For example, one officer who moved to Albany relatively late in life remembers that the department frowned on him when he did make arrests for minor infractions: “A lot of the older guys would look down their nose at that,” he explains.

“I can remember my Lieutenant yelling at me for bringing in a drunken driver, or different things that were [about] quality of life.”

Tolerance for vice and gambling declined somewhat under the glare of negative publicity (including an early-1970s investigation by the state into allegations that Albany police took payoffs from local prostitution rings), but the underlying watchman ethos remained.

The organization of the patrol force underwent more dramatic fluctuations.

Several decades ago, the APD was divided into six precincts that assigned officers to relatively small areas of the city.

But this decentralized structure eventually gave way to two relatively large patrol divisions within which officers did not have permanent beat assignments.

In the early 1970s, the department moved back towards decentralization again by using federal LEAA money to open up two neighborhood substations, located in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Arbor Hill and the South End.

Tensions with police were high in these areas, largely because of accusations about police brutality, but also because of concerns that police were ignoring these neighborhoods’ serious crime problems.

In response, the department assigned several non-uniformed officers to patrol these neighborhoods mostly on foot, charging them with delivering essentially all police services — from patrol, to call response, to investigation — and thereby creating what amounted to a new and separate police department dedicated solely to these two areas.


One substation officer remembers:

The neighborhood units, as they were called, were dressed in brown pants [and] either yellow or green blazers, and your cars were yellow.

So it was like having two different police departments.

And the people in the neighborhood would often say, “We don’t want the blue coats in here.”

And the uniformed officers in blue would resent [the neighborhood units].

There was a lot of divisiveness.

This divisiveness may have contributed to the substations’ closing in the mid 1980s, and some former unit officers argue that growing union activism also undermined them (among other demands, the new union insisted that the administration fill jobs in the neighborhood units through the seniority-based bid system that began to govern most other APD assignments).

But when Mayor Whalen eliminated the two units on the advice of an outside study, he presented the action as part of his more general downsizing of the police department, arguing that Albany simply would not have enough manpower to run these special substations any longer.

In closing the Arbor Hill and South End substations, Whalen returned the APD’s patrol force to the relatively centralized model it had used in the 1960s, which consisted of two divisions plus a traffic unit, with little focus placed on neighborhoods.


The basic grouping during this period was the squad, and the Lieutenants who commanded them were charged with overseeing the entire patrol force during their hours on duty.

It was not that there was no incentive at all to deal with neighborhood problems in this system: One department manager recalls, “I know when I was a Sergeant, if I had groups that were constantly congregating in one area between certain times, causing an uproar in the neighborhood, I didn’t want to have to go to the Lieutenant three times and tell him I couldn’t fix it."

"I’d fix it.”

But the difficulty was that accountability for these problems was often fragmented or ill-defined.

The manager continues:

Who did you go to?

Because if you were the Lieutenant on days and I came to you and said, “Hey listen, you need to straighten this out.”

And you said, “Yeah, yeah I do."

"But you know what, a lot of that happens after five, six o’clock at night, and that’s not my shift.”

Or I went to you on four to ten, and you said, “Well, you know, we have some problems with it — but man, after midnight when we go off, it’s [worse].”

So you never had that one person that you could go to and say, “Fix this,” or, “Why is this happening?”

As a result, some department veterans argue, chronic neighborhood problems never received the attention they deserved.

Outside of patrol, the relatively unspecialized APD of the 1960s (when operations divided into traffic, investigations, patrol, and communications) gradually added a number of dedicated units, including a juvenile unit, a community services unit, a drug unit, and an anti-burglary unit.

Like the neighborhood substations, most of these special units operated autonomously, having little coordination with the rest of the APD.

The drug unit, for example, worked flexible shifts and had little managerial oversight — to the point that by the early 1990s, some city officials felt it was getting out of control, as drug officers provoked a number of civil suits for excessive force and wrongful searches.

Community services, which met with neighborhood groups, provided crime prevention services, and took care of other community relations functions, obviously did not create the same types of concerns.

But many department members felt that it too was overly isolated, as the rest of the patrol force rarely attended community meetings with community services officers, who were expected to take care of such duties on their own.

TO BE CONTINUED ...
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

3. Administrative Systems


These problems with organizational structure apparently reflected more general administrative weaknesses in the APD.

In part, the department’s relative lack of emphasis on things like policy, procedure, and coordination reflected the strong influence of politics on Albany policing.

For example, hiring and recruitment were directed less by internal needs assessments and standardized testing than they were by the political machine.


(Even today, it is not hard to find department veterans who remember a time when the surest way to gain a police job in Albany was to contact one’s ward leader.)

This particular form of strong political influence subsided when Corning died in 1983, but at that point a new form of political influence began to dominate personnel decisions, namely, the massive downsizing of the Whalen administration, which saw hiring stop cold for eight years, promotions slow to a crawl, and total staffing drop by one-third.

In any case, other administrative systems also seemed to suffer due to political influence, as functions like planning, internal budgeting, and policymaking had little place in an environment where political leaders had final say in most important decisions.

The party’s opposition to unionization also had the effect of maintaining informal administration, as evidenced by the fact that formal rules governing things like assignments and discipline proliferated in the APD after the union did gain power in the late 1970s.

Further back in time, the internal affairs system also received little attention in Albany.

In particular, complaints against police were widely viewed as unwelcome, and the entire criminal justice system seemed to mobilize against those who made them. 8

“Twenty, thirty years ago, especially in this city, you didn’t make complaints,” one department veteran explains.

Mayor Whalen sought to revamp internal affairs in 1985 when he replaced its commanding officer in response to a high-profile case that he felt had not been investigated properly, and some department veterans argue that the complaint process became much more sophisticated around that time.

But others maintain that low-level complaints still tended to be deflected, since the small internal affairs unit simply did not have the time to investigate every minor incident.

TO BE CONTINUED ...
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

4. Management


The lack of structure and coordination that came with the APD’s informal administrative systems were something of a double-edged sword to department managers.

On the one hand, the lack of emphasis on strict rules and procedures meant that the personal authority of a manager or supervisor carried considerable weight, and it is perhaps for this reason that many department members remember their organization as a fairly hierarchical one.

“Back then,” one department member remembers, referring to the 1970s, “a Sergeant was a Sergeant and you did what he said."

"You didn’t question him, and you didn’t make suggestions.”

Indeed, supervisors tried to keep close watch over their subordinates: For example, officers were not supposed to contact outside agencies like code enforcement without first clearing it with their Sergeant.

And until forces like unionization and civil service began to erode upper management’s power in the 1980s, APD managers (working closely with elected officials) had essentially unilateral authority to make assignments, decide policies, and choose promotions.

In this sense, authority was fairly centralized in the APD during much of this period.


On the other hand, the department’s informal, craft-like flexibility made for something of an unruly organization that management occasionally had trouble controlling.

For example, many department managers felt that as attrition thinned out upper management ranks, individual units tended to go their separate ways, independent of oversight, coordination, and any overarching departmental strategy.

One department manager explains:

There was head butting going on within the department about who’s in charge, who’s running this, who’s doing that.

That was one of the problems they’d run into.

The other problem was that there were people doing things and not telling anybody about them.

And then [someone] would find out two to three days later that they had decided to send somebody to Timbuktu to go investigate something without clearing that through any of the proper channels. . . .

And the other thing was that the Chief was caught up trying to find out what was going on, and nobody had answers — they’d have stuff on the news, but nobody could tell him what happened.

These problems were particularly acute during the night shift, when the highest-ranking officers on duty would typically be the various division Lieutenants, who sometimes had trouble agreeing who should take charge of crime scenes and other situations.

Finally, beyond these questions of oversight, some department veterans argue there was simply too little mentoring by upper management.

“What was frustrating is when as a new supervisor . . . . you were just constantly bombarded with decisions and you weren’t necessarily sure what to do,” one department member remembers, going on to explain that the lack of upper management presence exacerbated the problem by leaving supervisors to their own devices.

Thus in this sense, management was fairly decentralized in this period, leaving officers, first-line supervisors, or at least division Lieutenants with important decisions — to the point that some of them felt that they were overburdened with authority.

TO BE CONTINUED ...
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Re: HISTORY OF ALBANY POLICE

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I. THE ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT THROUGH 1994

II. THE EVOLUTION OF COMMUNITY POLICING IN ALBANY


The growing national discourse about community policing began to touch Albany in 1991, when Mayor Thomas Whalen attended a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting on the topic and was prompted to direct then-Police Chief John Dale to implement it in the APD.

Dale’s staff spent three months studying community policing efforts in other cities, and the Chief then announced plans to start up an outreach unit that would partly re-create the popular foot patrols that Whalen had abolished a few years earlier (residents in those neighborhoods had repeatedly complained that they wanted their stations back after Whalen closed them in 1986).


This time, however, the effort would not involve physically opening up new police stations to which a large number of officers reported: Instead, the APD would assign eight officers total to four relatively small “quarters” in each of the Arbor Hill and South End neighborhoods, with a mandate to broaden their role beyond traditional police work.

“I want the officers to be able to get on the telephone and call an individual to take action, not go through the red tape,” Dale explained to a newspaper reporter at the time.

“[An officer might say] ‘I have a house that needs to be boarded up, I have a mother here who doesn’t have any food, you’ve got to help her.” 9

Dale especially hoped that that the officers would build rapport with residents in these neighborhoods and thereby reduce the historic mistrust that had existed in Albany’s African-American community, telling a newspaper reporter, “My internal affairs department shouldn’t have much work if this works.” 10

The foot patrols were apparently popular in the city, and some residents insisted that their community policing officers had helped clear out the most egregious drug markets in their neighborhoods. 11

But many in the APD felt that the program represented a superficial commitment to community policing.

One explains:

Essentially what they did was take about eight guys from neighborhoods in the upper end of the city, moved them down into the Old Arbor Hill and the South End . . . and said, “OK, you are community policing.”

No training. . . . .

They didn’t even consult what was then the command staff at the police department.

Just the Mayor said, “Community policing sounds good: Here’s what we’re going to do.”

And then, as was typical at that time, they didn’t take these guys and plug them into the organizational chart.

They just said, “You report directly to the Chief of Police.”

So when the Chief of Police went home, these guys were on their own.

Others concur that in this incarnation, the outreach unit was even more isolated from the rest of the department than the APD’s other special units.

The problem was not just that this version of “community policing” left most Albany officers untouched, but also that the unit itself sometimes did not get needed support.

Then-Sergeant Arthur Phinney, who commanded the outreach officers for a year, reports that his team made some significant accomplishments but that at times he felt constrained by wider organizational issues:

The community policing philosophy was just kind of taking hold and I, for one, really did not feel at that point that I had as free hand as I have now to position my people and to apply the manpower that I have . .

A couple of times I would suggest that maybe we ought to put them in plain clothes to do a certain thing, and I felt that there was resistance to that amongst my immediate supervision at the time.

So we didn’t do a lot of that stuff.

The problem, perhaps, was that longstanding disagreements with Whalen made police less than enthusiastic about carrying his newest program forward: Patrol officers opposed the effort through their union, and when Dale advertised the position for a Sergeant who would head up the new outreach unit, no one applied for the job, forcing the Chief to fill it by inverse seniority.

Some observers suggested that the union was politically-motivated, in that it was geared to oppose anything proposed by Whalen.

But union leaders argued that they had serious substantive disagreements with this particular proposal, maintaining that too few officers were being committed, that the target areas needed to be “cleared out” with sweeps before foot officers took to the beat, and that a heavy load of traditional police work was diverting the officers from the job they were supposed to be doing.

TO BE CONTINUED ...
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