Report questions Albany's commitment to community policing

2020-04-11 | Albert Lea Tribune (Minn.)

April 11-- Apr. 11--ALBANY -- After receiving almost no response from city officials to a survey last summer alleging residents' widespread mistrust of the police department and district attorney's office, the Center for Law and Justice issued a report earlier this month, questioning top city officials' commitment to community policing.

The report catalogs the tenures of District Attorney David Soares, Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Police Chief Eric Hawkins, and Common Council President Corey Ellis as well as how they've responded to various policing issues. The center's report also asks them to commit to specific changes, including acknowledging the existence of structural racism within the city's police department.

The August 2019 survey was supposed to be a jumping off point for more dialogue between city officials and residents, but it was essentially ignored, Green said in an interview. Green credited Council President Corey Ellis as being the only city official who directly reached out to the center after the survey was released.

And even with a global pandemic going on, Green said she believed the new report should go out.

"I know it's a difficult time right now, but we saw it as something we have to do," she said.

Last August the center, an Albany nonprofit, released the results of survey of 250 people that revealed many black and brown city residents distrust not only the Albany Police Department but the county District Attorney's Office, too.

Respondents "felt that racism was at the heart of a lot of the problems they were experiencing," Green said at the time.

Now the center says it will offer a report card in roughly six months, judging the four city officials on their responses to the latest report and how they've responded to issues around community policing.

Additionally, Green is calling on them to join the center in a fall symposium on recommitting the city to community policing.

All four city officials pushed back against the idea that they were not sufficiently committed to community policing.

The report offers some of the harshest criticisms for Police Chief Eric Hawkins. It notes that within his first 18 months on the job, he has dealt with three high-profile incidents involving police force against minority residents -- the August 2018 Ellazar Williams shooting, a September 2019 incident in which a woman was pulled from her car after refusing orders to exit the vehicle, and the March 2019 beating of several men on First Street.

"For all three troubling incidents, Hawkins has displayed a decided lack of responsiveness, transparency, and candor in addressing residents' concerns," the report says.

Green questioned whether Hawkins saw community policing the same way the city did when it created the LEAD program, a diversion program designed to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system. She pointed to his recent reorganization of the Neighborhood Engagement Unit and comments he made after announcing discipline against some of the officers involved in the First Street incident.

"It raised some questions about whether he's committed to community policing," she said. "For us, it's an equal partnership and we're not getting that sense."

Hawkins pointed to the national recognition the department had received before he was hired and that said he was trying to continue that level of commitment.

"I've supported every single community policing program in this department, and not only have I supported them I've expanded a lot of them," he said.

Chief among those is the city's police academy for young people, implicit bias training and a team policing approach the department recently began, matching patrol officers with those in the neighborhood engagement unit, he said.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan said that while she had not read the report, she believed strongly in community policing and that her office had backed community policing solutions in multiple instances. She also defended how the department operated.

"I think we have as transparent of a police department as any I've seen across the country," she said.

The report also asks Common Council President Corey Ellis to push through changes to the Albany Community Policing Advisory Committee and for the council as a whole to take a "more directive role in ensuring effective oversight of the APD." However Ellis said the advisory committee is an independent body, something the council can appoint members to, but not control directly.

"That doesn't fall under my purview," he said.

The report also criticizes District Attorney David Soares for a lack of transparency, and for not appointing a special prosecutor when his office is asked to investigate allegations against Albany police officers.

"It's hard to know what's going on in the district attorney's office," Green said. "It's still part of the community."

Soares, who is facing a primary challenger for the first time since 2012, declined an interview for the story but in a statement disagreed with the assertion that his office had not embraced community policing and refused to engage with residents.

"It is a matter of personal and professional pride that my office prioritizes community involvement, especially in areas most affected by violence and poverty," he said. "The mission of the Albany County District Attorney is to protect victims, fragile communities, and to implement reforms where needed."

His opponent, attorney Matt Toporowski, said Soares's office had continually refused to be transparent and contributed to a criminal justice system that disadvantaged poorer residents of color.

"To address structural racism and the lack of the community's trust, you need transparency on how cases are resolved, you need to provide access to critical information on those cases, and you need to empower the community to share input," he said.