It’s clear enough, both from anecdotal evidence over the years as well as from comments made by a Schenectady Civilian Police Review Board member in an Oct. 27 Gazette story, that people who run afoul of the law sometimes don’t hesitate to point an accusatory finger — even a false one — at police in an attempt to justify their own improper behavior.
Whether that is indeed what happened in a Sept. 9 incident involving Schenectady Patrolman Jonathan Haigh, two fellow patrolmen and Jamie Smith, Haigh’s on-again, off-again and currently estranged girlfriend (and mother of his 11-month-old daughter), is unknown at this point. But police have taken the virtually unprecedented step of citing the woman for lying in the internal affairs complaint she filed with them. And while their action may be justified, given the circumstances it can’t help but raise suspicions of their own attempt to deflect blame for bad behavior.
Smith’s allegations are disturbing: She says that after she’d phoned Haigh repeatedly, pleading with him to come stay with their daughter so she could go to the hospital for emergency medical treatment for her brain tumor — he gave her apartment keys to two colleagues. She claims that after they banged repeatedly on her apartment door at 6:30 in the morning, the patrolmen used the keys to open the door and, when she slammed it shut, kicked it in and arrested her for harassment.
Police assert that Smith made 60 calls to Haigh’s cellphone over the course of a single night, which some might construe as harassment. But without a warrant (which they didn’t have), it would have been illegal for them to enter her premises — either by key or by kicking the door in. Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett acknowledges as much, but insists it didn’t happen as Smith claims. OK, but he won’t say how it did happen.
In the meantime, cops have charged Smith with misdemeanor making a false statement. It’s an extraordinary response to something that happens often enough — civilians arrested by police making claims of brutality, etc. — and in Schenectady has been borne out at least occasionally. The problem, whether the countercharge is justified or not, is that the case involves a Schenectady police officer’s personal dispute. And that makes the department look like it’s overreacting to protect one of its own.
There’s also the issue of the chilling effect the extraordinary response is likely to have on other police “customers” who feel they’ve been wronged one way or another by improper police conduct. They need to know they can lodge a complaint without fear of retribution.
Better that the cops had handled Smith’s complaint the way they do others, with Internal Affairs conducting an investigation, making a determination and letting the Police Review Board consider the results.