Recording shows Albany’s police reform group grappling with backlash, low participation

A recording of a private meeting of Albany’s Police Reform Collaborative obtained by 518Independent shows a group trying to come to terms with mounting backlash and a lack of public participation following their decision to bar the public and journalists from attending and even watching meetings they initially labeled “public.” 

In the recording, the group spends a significant amount of time grappling with the complexities of Zoom technology and its moderation capabilities. The motivation for banning the public from viewing the meetings is unclear, as the conversation toggles between three concerns: providing a safe space for people sharing details of their bad interactions with Albany police, barring the media from reporting on those experiences, and protecting themselves from harassment and mean comments. 

The December 9 meeting followed the kickoff of the Collaborative’s series of “public input” meetings, which saw six people sign up to speak and only four actually attend. To secure an invite to the meetings Albany residents had to fill out a form that asked for their name, address, phone number, and neighborhood, and had them state whether they’ve had interaction with the APD and the reason they wanted to speak. 

Two days later, on Dec 11, Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced that the meetings would be available to stream for the general public 

Some-rank-and file members lamented that group chairs (members who head smaller, working groups within the Collaborative) decided to bar the public from watching but also grappled with how to keep police and “the media” from attending. 

One member asked if it was possible to give out invitations to attend Zoom meetings to those who sign up, to avoid allowing in police, whose presence might intimidate people who wanted to speak.

Sheehan aide Brian Shea responded: “Yes. All of that’s possible. But then we lose the ability to control, you know, to the extent we can, people recording it remotely from a screen and then sharing it. So it is a balance: should these meetings be streamed or should they not?” 

Dannielle Hille of non-partisan community group A Block at a Time reminded the group that she was against making the meetings private. Sources say the initial decision to make the meetings private was to provide a safe space where testimony wouldn’t be hindered by police presence. “ I’ve voiced my concern. This is exactly what I expected to happen. I hate to be the one that says that, but here’s the problem. The problem is that you can’t have it all ways. If you want it anonymous, it has to be closed like this. If you want anyone to just be able to join it– and you have to take into consideration that the people that could be joining could be police officers–nothing says they have to identify themselves. They could be the family of police officers. They could be the media. You have no idea who’s going to be joining in them,” said Hille 

The meeting then moved to discussion of how to do things differently. 

Asked by a member why a link to a Zoom meeting with a dedicated moderator assigned to block out harassing speech couldn’t be given to the public, Hille responded: “We can’t post it (an open link) on social media because that will likely end up with a penis being drawn on the screen while we’re in the middle of a video, or racial slurs; that’s happened as well. It’s called Zoom bombing. So we can’t just put that link up.” 

Shea and city constituents services assistant Jasmine Higgins acknowledge that they have access to webinar software that would allow significant moderation. Shea stressed that neither he nor Higgins were there to lead any decision making. Higgins requested that committee chairs reach out to their members about any decisions going forward, because she had been inundated with questions from the public and members about the meetings’ formatting. 

Ava Ayers of Albany Law School who also leads meetings of Albany’s Community Police Review Board offered a concise and apparently prudent plan. 

“In terms of anonymity, I wonder if based on tonight where hardly anybody showed up and nobody was able to watch, and we’re all reflecting on that and thinking we’d like to do some stuff different. What if we move to a model where we’re more open to the public people can, anybody can watch. And at every one of the meetings that are public, we can say, look, if you’re out there and you’re thinking, I have something to say, but I’m not comfortable saying it right now because anybody could be recording me to me we’re going to give you a forum for that.” Ayers suggested giving out an email address where people can share their experiences with the APD anonymously; that email would be delivered only to board members, and not members of Sheehan’s staff. 

“I think tonight demonstrated that that shouldn’t be the default. People want to watch and we can provide security, whether it’s through a webinar or through Zoom,” said Ayers. “The Community Police Review Board holds all our meetings with a Zoom meeting. We have the power to kick people off. If they misbehave, we have the power to stop people from unmuting themselves.” 

In early November, VOCAL-NY and a host of regional activist groups organized a community speakout in Arbor Hill where community members shared their negative interactions with Albany police. The forum was open to attend for all except the police and broadcast on Facebook. 

VOCAL organizer Luke Grandis has continually challenged the Sheehan administration to open up the reform collaborative process to the public by taking into account comments made on social media, collecting reports of the Collaborative’s activities that the public can access through email or physical mail subscriptions and by adding closed captions to streamed meetings for the hearing impaired. 

Asked for comment about the Collaborative’s reversal allowing meetings to be streamed, Grandis said it was a step in the right direction, adding, “Until people without internet access are prioritized, this Collaborative will not be able to say they’ve truly included community input. We want to know how people without internet access are being included in these decision-making processes.” 

The next public input meeting of the Collaborative will be streamed on Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s Facebook page on January 4 from 6-8 PM.

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