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Firings, turnover giving Schenectady police a fresh start

Firings, turnover giving Schenectady police a fresh start

Although no one is declaring victory, city officials are beginning to talk cautiously about a new “c

Although no one is declaring victory, city officials are beginning to talk cautiously about a new “culture” in the Police Department, brought about through an extraordinary series of five officers kicked off the force and the voluntary departure of a third of the department over three years.

With so many new officers, city officials are hoping their rookies will no longer be “tainted” by a culture that once encouraged officers to protect each other from punishment.

Officials suspect that culture also encouraged some officers to break the law, either by turning a blind eye to their activities or through the direct mentorship by older officers.

“I’ve often wondered how long it is before they become tainted by the negativity of the union, or those who say, ‘This is how it’s done, kid,’ ” Mayor Brian U. Stratton said. “You wonder, when these young, nimble minds come into the force, even though you go to great lengths [to train them correctly].”

Two relatively young officers, for example, with four and six years of experience, were recently forced out of the department for beating an unarmed, handcuffed man.

In another case, a rookie encountered an off-duty officer who had crashed into a parked car. The rookie sought advice from the second most experienced officer on his shift on how to handle his fellow officer. The rookie testified in court that after getting advice, he drove the off-duty officer home and did not conduct sobriety tests or issue any tickets. That officer was later accused of driving drunk and has now been fired.

Through extraordinary efforts, the city has now gotten rid of five of the eight officers on Stratton’s termination list. It’s taken two years and more than $1 million, including legal fees — and the fight’s not over yet. Two officers are already threatening to appeal their firings.

But many more of the department’s experienced officers have chosen to leave on their own. In the past 31⁄2 years since Stratton announced that he would change the department’s supervision and fire errant officers, 37 officers have left voluntarily. Some left with praise, retiring at the end of successful careers. Others resigned to take jobs at other police departments. And some just left.

The result has been the creation of an almost entirely new department.

Of the 87 patrol officers — the ones who respond first to any scene and have the most interaction with the public — the vast majority began working after Stratton took office.

Only 27 officers on patrol have more than 10 years of experience.

This could hinder some departments — losing valuable experience — but city officials are hoping it will improve their department significantly.

“It provides the opportunity for us to bring in a new breed,” Stratton said, “to wipe the slate clean and begin fresh.”

And they replaced some officers who were no longer worth keeping, said Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, describing some of the officers who left as bitter and disillusioned about their job.

“They really don’t offer anything positive,” he said, adding that they could have a negative influence on the rookies.

“They also tend to be the most vocal,” Bennett said.

With another 20 officers expected to retire early through an incentive offered by the city, newcomers will soon be in the majority, with roughly 80 officers having worn the badge for less than 10 years. There are 161 officers, as well as the chief and four assistant chiefs.

That’s a level of turnover that Bennett calls significant.

But Stratton and City Council President Gary McCarthy said it’s too soon to tell whether the new officers will create a dramatically different department.

“I’m reluctant to proclaim victory,” Stratton said, adding, “I’m reluctant to say we’ve shaken out all the bad apples. We have to continually drive it home to our police.”

McCarthy agreed.

“The department has shot itself in the foot so many times,” he said. “It’s the type of thing where you have to look back and say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s where everything changed.’ ”

Replacing officers with “newer, younger, better educated” rookies was an essential step, he said.

Stratton noted that standards were raised with the newer hires, making it more likely that the department would not hire recruits with anger management and substance abuse problems.

He said some of the officers he has been trying to fire may have had “questionable” incidents in their past that would have kept them from becoming police officers.

“I think the bar was set very low,” he said.

At least one of the officers hired under the old system was a known alcoholic, sources said.

Other sources said Dwayne Johnson was accused of sleeping on duty at his last job. He is now facing termination on accusations that he left work four hours early some days and worked a second job during some of his city work hours.

Bennett said background checks were “terrible” during Chief Greg Kaczmarek’s tenure, from 1996 to 2002.

Three of the 11 officers hired in 2001, for example, have now been forced out of the department. A fourth faces termination. The other four officers on Stratton’s termination list were not hired during Kaczmarek’s tenure; one was hired after Stratton became mayor.

The next big step in turnover will be among the department’s supervisors. The new police contract sets the stage for a significant change in leadership. Of the officers eligible for the new early retirement incentive, one-third are in the command staff.

Half of the lieutenants, captains and assistant chiefs could retire. Three of the 18 sergeants could also leave.

The command staff has been repeatedly criticized in investigations by state police, the FBI and a local grand jury. Supervisors also have been criticized by city officials for not checking the officers’ GPS units to make sure they were patrolling during their shifts. Supervisors did not start checking the GPS reports until The Daily Gazette reported that Officer Dwayne Johnson was often parking at an apartment overnight rather than patrolling.

But the detectives division could also change dramatically.

Of the 30-member department, 24 are eligible for early retirement.

The detectives have also come under some criticism for the city’s subpar solve rate.

From 1998 to 2000, according to FBI data, the police had a better solve rate for nearly every serious crime than it did in the three-year period from 2005 to 2007. The FBI will release the data for the next three-year period in February, but the city plans to release it earlier as the department prepares to closely analyze real-time data under a new program called CompStat.

That program will likely get under way next month. It is expected to require commanders to regularly change their tactics to respond to crime trends. In New York City, where the program was created, commanders who did not increase their solve rates were demoted or otherwise disciplined. That’s not expected here, Bennett said.

The department is also reorganizing to put more officers on walking patrols. It recently changed protocols so that police gather better evidence at burglaries in hopes of cracking more of those cases.

McCarthy said those changes create the possibility of the department excelling, rather than simply eliminating its bad apples.

“We’ve created a platform of opportunity for the department to do good things,” McCarthy said. “Now we’ve got to be able to say, in three or five days we have an arrest.”

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