Gunshots may periodically echo through the streets of Schenectady, but violent crime is down substantially over the past two years, according to law enforcement officials and the latest crime statistics.
Officials attribute the decline to Operation IMPACT, a state initiative to control crime in the 17 counties that account for 80 percent of all crime in the state outside of New York City. Violent crime is defined as murder, rape, robbery or assault with a weapon.
Since Operation IMPACT’s launch in 2004, Schenectady has received more than $1 million in grants to fight crime. At a news conference in Jerry Burrell Park at 11 a.m. Monday, the state will award Schenectady its largest grant to date: $900,597, an increase of $35,000 from the 2007 grant.
Neither state nor local officials would reveal until the news conference how the new money will be used. Past grants, however, were used to establish the growing network of surveillance cameras in the city and to create an Office of Field Intelligence in city police headquarters.
The Office of Field Intelligence, by far, has had the greatest effect on controlling crime, said District Attorney Robert Carney and police Capt. Peter Frisoni, who oversees the office.
The office became fully operational in late 2006 and early 2007. It gathers information from various sources and uses crime statistic analysis to proactively tackle crime.
“The significant thing is Schenectady did have the greatest decrease in crimes between 2006 and 2007 than any other IMPACT site. [The year] 2007 marked the first year we got significant funds,” Carney said. “That was when we launched the Office of Field Intelligence; that was when we got some resources to do some significant things.”
State Division of Criminal Justice Services statistics show Schenectady saw a nearly 14 percent decrease in overall crime between 2006 and 2007; a nearly 14 percent decrease in violent crime; and a more than 13 percent decrease in property crime.
“The numbers would have been higher without the IMPACT money,” said Michael Seber, assistant chief of police for Schenectady. “We have increased our patrols with state police. For June, we have had a decrease in index crimes overall.”
For the first five months of this year, violent crime continued to decline — 5.7 percent — while property crimes are up 5 percent. Even in this regard, Schenectady’s statistics are lower than those of other IMPACT counties, said John Caher, spokesman for the state Division of Criminal Justice services.
“As a general proposition, crime is trending upward in 2008, but that increase is driven primarily by an increase in property crime,” driven, Caher said, by a souring economy.
The state’s annual report on Operation IMPACT shows that in the 17 IMPACT counties, which also include Albany, total crime is down 6 percent between 2006 and 2007. It also shows that violent crime is down 10 percent and property crime is down 5 percent.
“Crime has declined by an incredible margin,” Caher said.
By contrast, counties not in the IMPACT program, for the most part, saw slight crime declines and even crime increases. Tioga County, for example, recorded a 9.4 percent decrease in overall crime while Lewis County saw a 17 percent increase in overall crime between 2006 and 2007.
Professor Scott Phillips, of the Buffalo State College’s Department of Criminal Justice, said he would evaluate Operation IMPACT’s effectiveness in a different manner, rather than just relying on numbers. He said if police are actually using crime statistics to target problem areas and solve crimes, that is a measure of success.
“They have to go beyond an in-house examination and get outside and get the community involved,” Phillips said. “If they are doing that, then they have a better leg to stand on when using statistics as a measure of success.”
The state is, in fact, pushing this approach, officials said. In return for IMPACT grants, the 17 counties have to develop partnerships with federal, state and local law enforcement and criminal justice services; develop crime-fighting strategies using real-time data; work collaboratively in making decisions; and develop intelligence-based policing.
In Schenectady’s case, the Office of Field Intelligence brought together city police, including two detectives and a police sergeant, the sheriff’s department, state parole, county probation, the district attorney’s office and a civilian crime analyst. All these positions are funded through IMPACT. In addition, the city has partnered with state police to patrol areas of high crime identified through statistical analysis and other methods.
“We were the first of the IMPACT counties with a full-time, dedicated Office of Field Intelligence,” Frisoni said. “They are a utility unit and will do whatever is asked of them. No job is too big or too small. They assist law enforcement in everything from murder investigations to assisting other investigative units with cases.”
Putting pieces together
Specifically, the unit sifts through the reams of information obtained from various sources and puts out crime-specific reports with detailed information. The reports go to all officers and are updated weekly.
“Everyone is getting the same information. It reduces the chance a critical piece of information will fall through cracks,” Frisoni said.
Carney said the unit, for example, helped crack a string of burglaries involving the theft of copper. The unit focused attention on metal reclamation sites and obtained information on people who were frequent customers. Follow-up work helped tie some of these people with the thefts.
Frisoni said the unit also played a key role in apprehending a suspect who allegedly raped a woman in a city parking garage. He added the unit is now focusing on pawn shop activity, with the specific intent of reducing property crimes.
In other words, police are aware that property crimes are increasing and using crime mapping have devised a strategy to capture suspects.
“There were operations shaped to get at those crimes,” Carney said.
Frisoni said none of the coordinated intelligence-gathering activities would have been possible without IMPACT money. “It is labor intensive to do this. The two detectives focus on crime data. They have conducted an extensive graffiti investigation, for example. It is a complex investigation that would not be possible using other detectives because they have other priorities. We have made several arrests and made inroads into that particular crime,” he said.
Phillips questioned why more departments don’t adopt these techniques if they have proved so successful. “If you have dedicated yourself to priorities that work, why don’t you do it all the time?” he asked.
Phillips said one reason is that police agencies are rooted in traditions that take time to replace. As an example, he mentioned road patrols, a strategy police have used for as long as motor vehicles have been available. “They are not working so well,” but police are reluctant to abandon them, he said.
He called intelligence-driven policing the community policing of the 21st century. “It is smart policing, it is connecting the dots and it is a step above community policing,” Phillips said.
Over the line
Another concern about Operation IMPACT is the possibility of law enforcement overstepping its bounds in the pursuit of reducing crime, according to the Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“Of course it’s good and appropriate for the police to be trying new methods and acquiring new resources to stamp out crime, but it is critical that with a stepped-up police presence there must also be stepped-up accountability,” said Executive Director Melanie Trimble.
She said police departments must not engage in tactics that alienate communities or violate individual rights. And police officers must be trained to work in the communities they’re policing.
“If police flood the streets with a hostile attitude and start suspicionless street stops and interrogations just because a neighborhood is ‘high crime,’ it is going to breed hostility, resentment and antagonism. Distrust and civil rights violations do not produce a long-term reduction in crime,” she said.
Carney said police do not stop vehicles based on the driver’s race. The data they collect and use is based more on criminal activity and not on racial profiles. “We focus on what the person does, not who he is,” he said. “We are trying to develop a list of people who are creating the most disproportionate amount of crime and disorder. You will have a greater reduction in crime by concentrating resources on these people.”