During a week when hundreds protesting the murder of Daniel Prude in Rochester were met with with pepper spray, tear gas, LRAD sound cannons and violent arrests, the Albany Police Reinvention and Reform Collaborative received a history lesson about the Albany Police Department from Chief Eric Hawkins.
The mundane and orderly Zoom meeting broadcast on Facebook likely wasn’t on the minds of most Albany residents despite the raging debate about policing, because the Albany School Board meeting, where hundreds of proposed layoffs were up for consideration was occurring at the same time.
The contrasting picture of Albany and Rochester is probably one Kathy Sheehan, Albany’s mayor, wants; it fits with the narrative the mayor pushed after riots in the city’s south end following the murder of George Floyd. Sheehan’s reaction indicated that she was shocked that anyone in her city would be that upset. She reiterated that the peaceful–read “legitimate”–protesters had already cleared their events with the city.
This insistence that legitimate protesting is strictly peaceful is in line with her reaction to the BLM movement. That reaction has included painting Black Lives Matter on Lark Street, an area not known for its Black-owned businesses, and her promise to remove the statue of slave owner Philip Schuyler from city property. But no major concrete policy changes. Even after admitting the use of tear gas against protesters might have violated the department’s own rules Sheehan failed to act.
So too, then, has the policing collaborative, in its initial meetings focused on the superficial, with tutorials in decorum, play-acting scenarios of implicit bias and so on.
Discontent with the process is growing from the inside. And some of the collaborative’s members fear that the result of the process, which is supposed to result in recommendations on how to reform the police, is a foregone conclusion: an increased police budget.
Two of the policing collaborative’s youngest members, both from the newly formed Youth Political Alliance, are speaking out.
Decorum First, Collaboration Later
Aden Suchak, who voiced his frustrations during a recent meeting, says he’s alarmed that no dialogue has yet occurred between authority figures like Albany County District Attorney David Soares, Police Union head Greg McGee, and Chief Eric Hawkins and members of the panel who are critical of the police.
“The intention here is to create something that visually is very appealing and visually achieves the goals that they are claiming that they want to achieve while not actually, really, doing any substantive work,” says Suchak. “A perfect illustration of this is that we have people like David Soares and Greg McGee, who rarely interface with the public on this call, and instead of dialogue you have a forced interaction.”
Jahaira Roldan, co-founder of YPA and head of Project TRY, is concerned that the makeup of the policing collaborative ignores a host of community members who are leading the conversation about police reform.
”I want to see the expansion of the existing collaborative to include more black, queer, indigenous and immigrant people,” says Roldan “We’re seeing a lot of the same bureaucracy, consistently through these meetings, that’s avoiding actual conversation. The first meeting that we had was about debate and dialogue. In a lot of ways, it was a how-to, on surface level bureaucracy and how to dodge real conversation. They know that if they were to reach out to community activists, leaders, organizers–that there would be an inevitable conversation starter in that they are there and that their existence is revolutionary.”
Suchak says that his mission now as a representative of the YPA is to push for real dialogue. “Until there’s more community engagement and involvement in a way that really feels authentic and also forces the folks that are empowered in this space to be vulnerable and to be accessible..until that happens we will be agitating for the things that we care about and that we want to see done. We’re not going to sit here and let you indoctrinate us into police school here. From my perspective as the YPA rep [my job] is to say, ‘OK, so all this stuff that you just said is nice and good, but what are you going to do about the fact that, you know, folks were illegally tear gassed on the 30th and then on June 1st?”
Sheehan’s Chief of Staff David Galin responded to a request for comment on the criticisms leveled at the collaborative with a distillation of press copy posted on the city website weeks ago.
“The goal of the City of Albany Police Reform & Reinvention Collaborative is to engage in a robust conversation about policing in Albany and explore opportunities to reimagine how we create safety in our community. Mayor Sheehan and Chief Hawkins have convened a diverse group of people representing a myriad of institutions, community organizations, and neighborhoods to explore a range of topics, including: implicit bias, the history of policing, 21st Century Policing Strategies, current policies, programs, and practices of the Albany Police Department, and call and demographic data,” his statement begins.
Members note that meetings feel haphazard and pieced together at the last minute.
518Independent learned that days before launching the meetings, the city was seeking a contractor to produce, film and stream each meeting. Those efforts were unsuccessful.
The city’s website says the following about the meetings: “The first 7 meetings were intended to explore a range of topics, including implicit bias, the history of policing, 21st Century Policing Strategies, current policies, programs and practices of the Albany Police Department, and call and demographic data. All meetings are live streamed and recorded so that the public can participate virtually.”
The provided link does not go to an easily-accessible archive but to Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s Facebook page, which is cluttered with posts of photo ops and unrelated material–only heightening the sense of some activists and collaborative members that the entire process is an afterthought or an exercise in publicity.
There may still be time for more community members to join the process. “Once the first seven, live-streamed meetings are complete, the Collaborative will expand direct participation to our entire community through various working groups and public meetings designed to solicit input and conversation around specific policy recommendations,” said Galin’s statement
Asked whether they’d consider taking part in the process after the first seven meetings given what they’ve already seen, local activists seem conflicted. Lukee Forbes of SOON said he believes the meetings are a show and doubts there is any real intention toward reform. He says he expects to see the police budget increased without much discussion about policy change.
Manetertep El Dey of Albany House of Peace said that he’d feel obligated to take part in the hope of creating real change, no matter how hopeless it might seem.
With community input in hand working groups will create a draft final report that will be available for public comment. The draft with comment will then be presented to the Albany Common Council.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order says the process must conclude by April 1 of next year. But Sheehan will have to present a new budget in October, and with the city facing a record number of shootings, it’s expected she will face pressure to increase police spending.
“This is just all preliminary work to get to the point where we can propose a budget, that we’re probably all not going to be on the same page on to propose to the common council,” says Roland. “And then the common council is going to vouch for more funding for the police, because they’re going to argue that their constituents are asking for more police, and it’s just going to be the continuous fight for defunding, for reinvesting that money into our communities. And so right now, to my understanding, this is all for decorum and I hope to see that change.”