Could officer’s firing change the conversation around police reform in Albany?




Photo by Robert Cooper

City officials in Albany rushed to fire APD officer David Haupt after The Times Union reported on body-camera footage that captured a virulently racist tirade in which the officer called Black people “the worst fucking race.” 

But Haupt will likely be on the payroll for months to come. That’s because his case can go to arbitration, thanks to union protections. A recent report by The Times Union stated that arbitration can take up to a year or more, and cited the APD’s attempted firings of three officers involved in a 2019 incident on First Street in which officers beat and kicked three men. 

Chief Eric Hawkins fired those officers in January of this year; all of them contested their firing and only one has begun the arbitration process. All of them have been collecting paychecks since their thirty-day suspensions without pay expired. Haupt is currently suspended without pay but will likely begin to collect a check again in a month’s time. 

Changing the Conversation

Activists and legislators say that a drawn-out process around the Haupt incident and more revelations expected to come, including perhaps the identity of the sheriff’s deputy who was conversing with Haupt in the video, could lead to a shift in the ongoing dialogue around police reform in the city.

If there is a shift, it would be likely to lead to a focus on the power police unions wield in protecting their officers despite misbehavior, and in setting policy. 

“I’ve been saying from the beginning that it’s all about the union” says Lukee Forbes, an activist and founder of Something Out of Nothing. “They are the ones that prevent reform.” 

On Thursday evening, following The Times Union’s report on the video, the Albany Common Council unanimously called for Haupt’s termination. 

Video courtesy of Albany Proper 

“The council as a body needed to send a message to the mayor and the chief that this kind of rhetoric by any city employee is not accepted. I felt strongly the council should make a statement unanimously,” explained Common Council President Corey Ellis when asked why the council moved on the vote so quickly. 

Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced she’d begun the termination process on Friday, a day after the officer’s racist tirade was first reported. Sheehan and Hawkins made comments indicating they saw Haupt as a lone “bad apple,” not indicative of the APD’s culture. But the data indicates otherwise. 

 Forest for the Trees

The release Haupt’s racist screed came on the tail of the release of city auditor Dorcey Applyrs’s independent racial-bias audit, which found that Black residents are disproportionately targeted for arrest and use of force by APD officers, something local activists have been saying for decades. It also falls in the middle of the city’s police-reform collaborative process, which has been deeply criticized by activists and reform groups for failing to acknowledge that the APD can’t be reformed by tinkering around the edges. 

In a recent public safety committee meeting of the Common Council focused on police reform legislation and in meetings of the collaborative, police representatives have pushed back forcefully against criticism and insisted they have checks in place that new laws would only duplicate–including a law that would require officers to keep their body cameras on at all times unless they have written approval to turn them off. 

“That officer (Haupt) wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying those things if his body camera was on. And other officers certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable beating up people, kidnapping people or shooting people in the back if they had to ask their superior for written permission to turn it off,” says Forbes. 

Another proposed law would give the Albany Community Police Review Board subpoena power. The board reviews complaints made by residents about police misconduct, but police essentially control the board and recommendations for punishment go through the police union. 

Over the last few months police unions have filed lawsuits trying to blunt the impact of major police reforms signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June. The package of reform bills passed by the legislature included the repeal of 50-a, a measure that blocked the public from accessing police disciplinary records. In cases across the state police unions have sued to block the release of those records–including in Schenectady. 

Forbes says Albany’s contract with the police union prevents real reform and keeps officers who have acted criminally and dishonorably on the force.

“If I was a shift manager at McDonald’s I wouldn’t hire people who were racist and I wouldn’t try to save their job after they attacked a customer,” says Forbes. “Why would they want these people to represent their organization? If they cared about the police they represent they wouldn’t want criminals as part of their organization for their own safety.” 

Ellis told 518Independent on Thursday evening that it is clear to him that Haupt isn’t an anomaly and that drastic change is required. 

“This is clearly systemic racism at work,” said Council President Ellis. “I’m sure the officer went through bias training, but weeding out racism needs to be methodical. It’s the system that lets him feel he can express those racist feelings so openly with no reprisal.” 

 

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