Schenectady’s leaders have become very adept at identifying the problems with the city police department, which is now averaging one embarrassing episode a week (compared to one every two weeks previously). Heading the list is a culture that makes officers think they can do just about anything and get away with it, and a contract and compliant arbitrators that basically prove them right.
The question is, what can be done about it? — because whatever the city has tried by itself hasn’t worked, and won’t work. It’s time for Mayor Stratton and the city council to stop talking about how disappointed, angry and frustrated they are after each incident, how impossible it is to manage the department, and seriously explore other options — from state intervention to abolishing the department and giving police responsibility to the county.
The problems have been going on for many years, through different mayors, chiefs, public safety commissioners and officers. That shows they are institutional and systemic, rather than a question of getting the right individual for this or that job (although it is clear that in many cases, from Gregory Kaczmarek to Ronald Pedersen to John Lewis, the hires could have been better). Which is why the problems have persisted through all the city’s attempted remedies, be it calling in the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, creating the position of public safety commissioner, reducing the number of assistant chiefs, increasing the number of assistant chiefs, installing video cameras and GPS systems in cars, whatever.
In other words, the city has pretty much tried everything a practical person would recommend and nothing has worked. What else can be done?
How about pursuing the New York City model from the mid-1890s, when New York’s “finest” were not so fine, but ineffective, corrupt and beyond discipline? Under its emergency power the state authorized a board of commissioners, whose president was Teddy Roosevelt, that had real disciplinary power, including the power to fire. Roosevelt made a variety of reforms and the New York City PD was cleaned up. Of course New York’s cops didn’t have a union contract like Schenectady’s have, the state Taylor Law, civil service law, and all. So it might not be possible.
Or, how about abolishing the department and having the county assume responsibility, either creating a force of its own (countywide or just for the city), expanding the sheriff’s department to do the work, or contracting with the state police? The county, although it has cooperated with the city in other areas in recent years, has been reluctant to handle a political hot potato like this.
But the county is also desperate for money these days. If the city police department were done away with, and a new force took over with different rules and salaries, the city could save a lot of money, which could be shared with the county. The better city cops could be hired by the county, the bad ones weeded out. The city could get more policing for less.
There are no obstacles in state law to abolishing the Schenectady PD; the city operates under a charter and can do what it wants. Nor is there any obstacle to the county accepting police responsibilities — as opposed to the countywide referendum that would be required if it tried to wrest responsibility from the city or force a merger of police departments.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has started a dialogue with political leaders and various groups around the state aimed at encouraging consolidations and shared services. The goal is to create efficiencies and save taxpayer money — and given the fiscal crisis, he is getting a positive reaction. Those are good reasons for the city to get out of the police business, but there is another, even larger one: Its police department is broken, seemingly beyond repair.