L’affaire McCarthy: City officials are failing miserably
Dispatching the family garbage at 1 a.m., May 19, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy saw “some kind” of crime down the street: two women were either “going through garbage,” “breaking into cars,” or “doing drugs.” Is dumpster diving now illegal in Schenectady, where 50 percent of Schenectady’s children live below the poverty line? Would people breaking into cars or doing drugs drive directly to a police station for protection?
According to one of the alleged “perps,” Sarah Dingley, an “elderly white male ... who looked rich [and was] intoxicated” had pulled beside her van and asked, “What’s happening?” as confirmed by Mayor McCarthy. This could have been interpreted as the stranger’s seeking sexual favors.
Later Ms. Dingley would declare to a 9-1-1 Schenectady Police Department dispatcher, “If he’s a creeper and sex offender, then I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.” The terrified woman explained that she and her passenger were being pursued by a stranger — our crime-fighting mayor — who was tailgating them, flashing his high beams, and shouting threats through his window. (I know that fear: in Los Angeles one midnight, I was followed for 24 miles by a man doing the same thing).
L’affaire McCarthy would be just an interpersonal tragicomedy if it weren’t for the mayor and his associates’ abuse of administrative powers. In fact, the “make-it-up as you go along” cover-up by the mayor’s underlings followed a well-worn formula: Those beholden to a public official gather initial evidence: Two of the six city policemen currently in line for the city’s vacant police chief position (Mayor McCarthy will make the final selection) conducted the initial (dilatory) “investigation” into his vehicular pursuit.
Keep physical evidence scarce. Failing to give the mayor a Breathalyzer test potentially reduced the events of May 19 to a non-actionable “he said/she said.” Create the image of “responsibility by no-one.” Schenectady Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett — a well-paid public official without an operational portfolio — initially referred the McCarthy matter to police spokesperson Lt. Mark McCracken, who referred reporters to Lt. Wesley McGhee, who had conducted the “investigation:” McGhee was subsequently “unavailable” for comment.
District Attorney Robert Carney failed initially to respond to journalists’ multiple requests for information; he later denied press access to crime camera footage. When City Councilman Vince Riggi requested an independent investigation, City Council President Lianne Perazzo held a closed meeting, with Commissioner Bennett a no-show.
Such a familiar formula would have killed an independent investigation into Mayor McCarthy’s conduct if The Daily Gazette had not gotten involved. I applaud The Daily Gazette’s even-handed coverage of l’affaire McCarthy and fully support an independent investigation by Saratoga District Attorney Karen A. Heggen. Yet one wonders how rigorous this can be when relatively little information exists, thanks to two police chief candidates and DA Carney.
The independent investigation should recommend Schenectady developing a transparent multi-level system for reviewing government officials’ actions, with plenty of overlapping operational redundancy for cross-checking. Those who have ignored and thus enabled public officials’ breaches of power must be taken to task.
To wit: Officers McCracken and McGhee are not police chief material; they failed to collect evidence that could have facilitated an investigation into Mayor McCarthy’s bizarre conduct on May 19. Without a wide-reaching overhaul of mechanisms for holding our public servants accountable, the city will face expensive lawsuits paid with taxpayers’ money.
The writer is a researcher of police in Brazil and the United States and an emerita professor at Union College and Tulane University, New Orleans, and has written several books and articles on police and government.