A few days ago, Schenectady began a yearlong series of events to celebrate the creation of Schenectady County on March 7, 1809, by the New York State Legislature.
A 200th birthday is quite an occasion in anyone’s eyes. But as the commemorative events got under way, many eyes were being diverted to another matter — the problems with the city’s police department.
For many years, The Gazette has regularly covered the nature of these problems and recently characterized them as “institutional and systemic” (editorial, March 4). Moreover, the former state police Superintendent, Wayne Bennett, who is now the city’s public safety commissioner, has acknowledged that the department’s rank-and-file attitude with respect to supervision and discipline appears to exceed a state of indifference. He called it “in your face.”
It is widely recognized that the department has faced a mountain of challenges in trying to reduce crime, in overcoming a series of public-image crises, and in maintaining the confidence of the public. A few days ago, the city’s popular mayor went out of his way to visit the force during its shift changes. He basically indicated that the entire force was on “probation.” If more incidents should occur, there is now a distinct possibility that a new county police force may be formed to replace the city’s existing police department.
The people of Schenectady and its suburbs — be they residents, day workers or visitors, deserve the best possible protective services.
Under the present circumstances and if conditions should not improve, a consolidation of county, city and, perhaps, eventually town law enforcement agencies should take the form of a new entity to be known as the “Schenectady County Police Department.” It is the most expedient method for deploying and delivering the necessary protective services.
Since the inception of the concept of public policing, there has been a long and interesting history of efforts to reform and professionalize America’s police departments. Generally speaking, the greatest strides with respect to these needs have been obtained through unification efforts. Many of the first urban police departments were created as a result of the merger of day and nighttime watch organizations.
In New York state, since 1879 there have been well over 30 mergers of police departments. On at least one occasion, this involved an entire county. One of the most important consolidations took place in 1898 when the Long Island City Police Department, Brooklyn Police Department, Brooklyn Bridge Police, Central Park Police, and the Telegraph Bureau merged into the New York City Police Department. Subsequently, both the New York City Housing Authority Police Department and Transit Authority Police Department merged into NYC’s Police Department in 1995.
In the fall of 1994, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani overcame stern resistance from the housing police union regarding the proposed merger. In the debate over the issue, he asked: “Why do we need three detective divisions to search for the same person and three payroll offices when we only need one?” Three years later, in 1998, the New York City Board of Education’s Division of School Safety also became a division of the city’s police force. In that same year, the New York State Capitol Police merged into the New York State Police. In 1960, nine towns and villages in Suffolk County merged to form the Suffolk County Police Department.
Most mergers have not been easy to accomplish. In many instances, they were delayed and impeded by local politics and the vested interests of union leaders. The issue of consolidation is also complicated by a long history and tendency throughout the nation for small cities and towns to insist upon the maintenance of their own police forces with little regard to costs or efficiency. The existence of separate forces seems to serve as sacred symbols of autonomy for the constituencies being served.
In recent years, there have been mergers of city and county law-enforcement agencies in places such as Las Vegas, Charlotte, N.C., Indianapolis, and Louisville, KY. While some critics insist these mergers didn’t save money, there is a general consensus that they did result in more effective crime control. Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County merged about 15 years ago. The county sheriff handles courts and the jail, but the city/metro police manage the rest of the law enforcement duties.
Officials within Schenectady can greatly contribute to the advancement of police professionalism by undertaking the necessary steps to weave together a new organization to deal effectively with their mutual crime problems.
The Gazette editorial also indicated that there did not exist “any obstacle to the county accepting police responsibilities” for the city. A May 2003 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police noted that those considering consolidations should avoid a simplistic analysis, including the financial measures. The chiefs’ group said there are other measures, such as better crime fighting, the satisfaction of officers and citizens, that deserve attention.
Consolidation is a way for the existing city force to overcome its limited staffing and its lack of diversity.
A newly configured countywide agency could be a more effective police force and have policies and procedures specifically designed to achieve a maximum ethic of accountability. A consolidated force would have the budgetary resources to modernize and approach police-community relations and crime prevention in a holistic manner. Significantly, the new county police department would be positioned to confront crime as a countywide community problem.
Martin A. Greenberg is an assistant professor of criminal justice, behavior and law at The College of Saint Rose. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.