Problems with the police have grown so serious that they overshadowed even the economy in the mayor’s State of the City address Monday.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton started his speech by reiterating his willingness to abolish the Police Department if officers continue to act unprofessionally.
“If need be, we must be resolved to find another way to provide police services. And if need be, we will,” he said.
He added that he is no longer certain the department can be reformed.
“Despite our best hopes, or previous steps taken toward real reform, it is obvious that progress in this area will come more slowly than we had hoped for. That is, if it can be achieved at all,” he said.
On other matters, his speech had a more optimistic note. He detailed plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of stimulus money to repave streets, rebuild sewer and water pipes, and demolish blight. He believes the city will get $700,000 in CDBG grant money — but held out hope for millions more.
“Our need for stimulus dollars is crystal clear,” he said, calling the stimulus a “new opportunity” for Schenectady. Today he is meeting with the governor to learn how to apply for additional funds and how much he could realistically expect to receive.
“Schenectady must aggressively compete for its fair share in this federal funding,” he said.
He also announced one new goal for 2009: developing a 311 system to handle non-police calls for help from residents. Problems with garbage pickup, road potholes, burned-out street lights and code violations could be reported through the system, he said.
New York City has a system that is staffed 24-7, but Stratton said Schenectady’s system would likely include leaving voice messages or e-mails after business hours.
He said the system could help residents get information faster while also enabling the city to more quickly dispatch crews to problem areas.
“Faster service . . . will be our goal as we explore cost and other options for possible implementation here,” Stratton said.
He finished his speech by promising to focus on the neighborhoods — which could get stimulus funding in his proposal — and on public safety.
“We go forward with optimism, caution and with our eyes open,” he said.
Council members reacted to his speech by asking him to research the options for abolishing the Police Department.
Councilman Mark Blanchfield, one of three who asked for the research, said, “I say this not out of a sense of anger because, frankly, I’m past it.”
He said children are forming negative views of police and are questioning the legitimacy of laws because of police actions.
“If we don’t have a situation where people can look up to law enforcement personnel and respect them, we’re going to have a lawless situation in a few years,” Blanchfield said. “I’m very concerned about it. I think we have to explore all the options out there.”
He and Councilwoman Denise Brucker stressed that they aren’t considering abolition “to punish” good officers.
But police Chief Mark Chaires told them, “That’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to be punishing innocent officers.”
He insisted that he could reform the Police Department, adding that every officer who misbehaved under his short tenure as chief has been punished.
“We’re holding officers accountable. I’m confident we can turn it around,” he said. “Officers have been arrested, put in handcuffs by their brother officers [for DWI]. Short of roadside executions, I’m not sure what you’d have us do.”