The Schenectady Police Department has corrected a pattern of abusing residents and violating their civil rights, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
For more than 14 years, the Justice Department has kept open a probe of the police, but there has been little action in years. For at least the past five years, Justice Department officials have refused to comment on whether they were even continuing to monitor the department.
But this year, police leaders met with the federal officials, asking them to formally close the probe. The Justice Department complied on Dec. 27, according to a letter sent to the city.
“Now they are satisfied there is not that pattern of abuses,” Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “The command staff worked for many years. We’ve seen the internal discipline. We expect officers to be held to a high standard. The department has done the right thing with disciplining them.”
Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett was on vacation, and the department is between chiefs, so McCarthy spoke for the department. He plans to appoint a new chief today or Monday.
The probe began in 1999, when the Justice Department began an investigation of the entire department regarding drug abuses. Two officers were accused of robbing a resident, taking his crack cocaine and giving it to another person.
The probe expanded over the course of a year, focusing on a series of what proved to be illegal acts. The Justice Department discovered that in some cases police broke into houses without warrants. In a particularly egregious incident, police kidnapped a city resident, took him to Glenville, threw his shoes into a forest and left him on a gravel road. Police later admitted that some officers would do such things to intimidate criminals when they could not find legal evidence to convict them.
In the end, four officers were convicted of drug-related felonies, ranging from aiding a crack house to providing crack cocaine to informants. The four — Michael F. Hamilton Jr., Nicola Messere, Richard E. Barnett and Michael J. Siler — served prison sentences for their crimes.
Another officer, William F. Marhafer II, committed suicide during the investigation after being subpoenaed to testify against the other officers. A year later, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney announced that Marhafer, along with another officer, had broken into an apartment without a warrant and lied about it under oath, leading to the conviction of two residents.
But the question in Schenectady was whether the abuses would stop when those officers went to prison. City leaders turned to a series of police chiefs, then put a public safety commissioner in charge as they searched for better leadership. They also fought for greater authority in punishment and tightened the standards for recruiting new officers.
Even so, police committed many misdeeds after the probe began.
One officer went to prison after he stole crack cocaine from the department’s evidence locker, ruining cases by tainting the reliability of the evidence. City officials hired Bennett after that, questioning why supervisors never noticed an addict in the Vice Squad.
Two officers were fired for badly beating a prisoner after removing him from a police car and getting him out of the range of the in-car camera.
Other officers turned off their car cameras so often that Bennett announced he would discipline anyone whose camera mysteriously “stopped working” during a shift unless the officer immediately reported the malfunction to dispatch. The malfunctions stopped abruptly.
City officials also attached GPS devices to each patrol car after The Daily Gazette found one on-duty officer was regularly cheering on his son at a bowling alley in Scotia when he was supposed to be patrolling city streets. That officer was disciplined.
Another officer was fired after he took a second job as a security guard — during his police duty shifts. Despite the GPS devices, police did not notice his absence from those shifts until The Gazette tracked him to an apartment where he apparently slept for hours while getting paid for both jobs.
After that incident, police commanders were ordered to file reports explaining every lengthy period of time in which the GPS devices recorded that a patrol car was not moving.
Police also cracked down on their own for off-duty drunk driving, after some embarrassing failures. Two rookies were criticized after they came upon an off-duty officer in a car accident. The officer appeared drunk, but they drove him home rather than following procedures to check his blood-alcohol level.
While the misdeeds did not improve the department’s reputation, officers saw a change. In case after case, when they fell short of their duty, they were punished. Several officers were fired.
The Justice Department said it was satisfied with the improvements.
“We are pleased that SPD has adopted a significant number of out technical assistance recommendations with respect to use of force, use of force reporting, and use of force investigations; citizen complaints; stops, searches and arrests; vehicle pursuits; performance appraisal system; hiring practices; and training,” the letter read. “We note especially some of the innovative approaches SPD has taken to improve policing, such as participation in the General Electric Power Systems training program for supervisors, and the initiation of a customer satisfaction survey.”
The Justice Department said it was pleased with the department’s progress, but recommended three more policy changes.
First, it said officers are still arresting too many people for resisting arrest without underlying crimes. The federal officials noted those arrests have decreased but said officers must continue to improve their verbal communication skills to cut down further on those arrests.
“While the number of these incidents declined sharply, there is room for improvement,” the officials said in the letter. “Continuing to offer officers verbal communication skills training, as well as scrutiny of these types of incidents by supervisors, will go a long way toward reducing the number of these incidents.”
The Justice Department also said officers need to better describe their use of force on forms created for that purpose. Some officers are still using “stock language such as ‘guided the subject to the floor,’ ” it said.
“It is important to capture in detail the actions of both the subject and the officer in order to properly evaluate whether the force used was reasonable,” the letter said.
The letter also said police need to improve their K-9 policy, specifically regarding bite ratios, crowd control uses and when to use a dog around juveniles. The letter says police dogs should not be used for crowd control without special approval from command staff, while the department policy currently allows dogs in some cases.
The department also calculates its bite ratio incorrectly and needs more detailed rules on when to use dogs around juveniles, according to the letter.
But, the letter said, the department has made steady improvement.
McCarthy said he believes the Justice Department is correct that there is no longer a pattern of abuse among officers.
He noted that the report came at an embarrassing time: just days after one of the department’s three shifts held an official Christmas party at which they hired strippers. But he said he’s hopeful that party will turn out to be “only” bad judgment and not a situation in which police crossed the line into sexual encounters with the strippers.
Police are still investigating the incident.
“We hope the self-inflicted wounds are behind us,” McCarthy said.