Schenectady County

Bennett: Free up cops for crime calls

Civilians should handle the non-emergency calls that overwhelm police every day, freeing officers to
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Civilians should handle the non-emergency calls that overwhelm police every day, freeing officers to work on serious crimes, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said.

He wants code enforcers and other city workers to take on some police duties, ranging from mediating between angry neighbors to fining residents for noise violations.

“They’re not violations of the criminal code,” Bennett said. “They’re not really police matters. There’s no reason for police to keep going back settling property disputes that go on week after week, year after year. But lacking anyone else to respond …”

Bennett’s idea is still little more than a concept. It has not been formally presented to the mayor or the City Council, which would have to approve such a significant change in policy. But his proposal would address the department’s slow response time, which the city has been trying to improve for years.

In 2006, then-chief Michael N. Geraci told the council that police take an average of 9.5 minutes to respond to the most serious calls, violent crimes in progress. Non-violent complaints take much longer. If a drug dealer is peaceably selling cocaine outside a business, or someone reports a car crash with no injuries, the average response time is 45 minutes, he said.

Bennett has not provided more recent statistics, but said he thinks police respond quickly to the serious calls. It’s the low-priority calls that are handled too slowly, Bennett said.

Most of those calls are not emergencies and many don’t require a police officer’s attention. But like most cities, Schenectady fields dozens of non-emergency 911 calls every day. Officers say those calls take up most of their time, although police could not offer statistics. In Albany, police department spokesman James Miller said the majority of the department’s calls are for non-emergencies.

Albany has made an effort to send those calls to other departments. A civilian parking division handles calls relating to cars blocking driveways and similar matters. But police still handle most of the non-emergencies, Miller said.

SHIFTING THE LOAD

Bennett wants to go further and have civilians handle all non-emergency complaints, even though angry residents who call after City Hall closes for the night would usually have to wait until the next business day to get any response to their problem.

“Maybe they could call code,” Bennett said. “You’re warned X number of times by the code enforcer and then you’re cited. The code officer could do that.”

There are 11 code enforcers and about 164 police officers.

Bennett added that a fine issued by code enforcement could have a more lasting effect than a visit from a police officer, particularly in noise complaints.

“Once the police leave, the noise goes back on again,” he said. “Maybe if they get fined, they’ll stop.”

The infraction is a violation of city code, not the state’s criminal statutes, so code enforcers could issue a ticket. However, residents have long complained that police should issue tickets for noise violations. They are legally allowed to do that, but usually police just tell residents to quiet down.

Bennett said handing those issues to civilians needs to be considered because the city police are desperately needed for more serious crimes.

“Given the history of the police department that’s been strapped for personnel, is this an appropriate use of personnel?” he said. “It’s wasting the resources. There’s got to be a better way.”

City Councilman Gary McCarthy agreed that police handle too many non-criminal complaints.

“The P.D. is your high-priced baby sitter,” he said.

Mayor Brian U. Stratton and code enforcement officials did not return calls for comment.

It’s not clear whether code enforcement would have the time to take on additional responsibilities, considering that Stratton doubled the team last year so they could cite more property code violations.

Code enforcement officers also have indicated concerns about their safety in the past. They now drive city-owned cars so that irate residents can’t vandalize their personal vehicles to protest a code violation ticket.

Building Inspector Keith Lamp also told the council recently that the enforcers have been intimidated by angry residents. It’s gotten to the point where he moves his inspectors to a new neighborhood as soon as they tape up violation notices, out of fear that residents would lie in wait and attack them if they walked through the neighborhood again, Lamp said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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