Schenectady’s new police chief is in favor of body cameras and he believes his officers will be, too.
Chief Eric Clifford, speaking to The Daily Gazette’s editorial board this past week, said he sees body cameras as supporting officers’ efforts.
“I think our union would support it and embrace it,” Clifford said when asked about the devices, “because I’m telling our guys all the time, ‘You guys are doing everything you’re supposed to do. You don’t want to be second-guessed basically just because one piece of [an incident] wasn’t caught on video.’ ”
Clifford offered no time table for the implementation of a body camera program, acknowledging funding is a big hurdle. He said he’s asked Assistant Chief Michael Seber to look into the possibility of grants.
If successful, Schenectady would the third area police department to start using the cameras. The Albany Police Department started a body camera pilot program earlier this month, and Saratoga Springs has used body cameras for some time.
Clifford has been making the rounds with community groups in the weeks since Mayor Gary McCarthy named him police chief a month ago.
During a discussion last week with The Daily Gazette’s editorial board, he shared some of his plans for the department, both on the street and at headquarters.
Clifford wants to get officers into the community in a more active way, giving them time between calls to walk around and meet residents, ensuring they are comfortable approaching officers.
He intends to focus on the city’s drug problem, including street-level marijuana sales that can turn into bigger problems left unchecked, he said.
He also described his management style as collaborative. He likes roundtable meetings, getting input from a variety of people.
He said he expects to work closely with his boss, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, as well as his experienced assistant chiefs.
“As a group, we’re formulating all these different things that we’re doing or that we would like to do,” Clifford said. “My job is to sell it to the union, so that we don’t get any blowback.”
Inside the department, Clifford said he is looking at some reorganization. For instance, the department’s Youth Aid Bureau, which investigates crimes against children, could be expanded into a full Special Victims Unit to encompass all vulnerable victims, while also preparing for the possibility that the legal age definition of juveniles might increase from 16 to 18.
He’s already made a change that he sees as improving response times to accident scenes, making such response a top priority for traffic enforcement officers.
The department also has eight positions to fill. But, having hired as many candidates from the current civil service list as was practical, the department is waiting for the next test, later this year, to begin filling those positions, Clifford said.
Clifford has spoken of focusing on the drug trade, not only crack cocaine and heroin, but also marijuana.
Police late last month arrested 10 people in Mont Pleasant during a street-level marijuana sweep.
“In Schenectady, it’s a big deal,” Clifford said of marijuana.
While marijuana’s recreational use has been legalized in some states, Clifford said that, in Schenectady, “it’s creating these pockets of quality-of-life issues for neighborhoods. These pockets attract litter. They attract people just standing around doing nothing, which then leads to drug dealing, which then leads to gunfire because people are fighting over turf.”
Clifford said his effort to get officers out into the community more hinges on efficiency; they can’t effectively engage with residents with the call volume the way it is.
He is working on strategies to reduce the number of calls. In one example, officers are sent to retrieve abandoned bicycles, but maybe another city employee can do that, he said.
Community policing itself could help, Clifford said. If officers are more frequently visible in neighborhoods residents may start talking to police about non-emergency situations, rather than calling dispatchers.
“It reduces the call volume because people feel comfortable just flagging down their local police officer to give them something that’s not necessarily a priority call,” Clifford said.
A new image
At the same time, Clifford is looking at how officers present themselves to the public, ensuring a more professional look — and a less threatening one.
He noted external carrier vests that have evolved to include pockets for pepper spray or Tasers or ammunition magazines. The vests are designed to get weight off the officers’ waists —weight that can lead to back issues.
Altogether, Clifford said, the vests make officers look like they were outfitted for a SWAT team.
“They don’t look very approachable,” Clifford said. “Is somebody in the public going to want to approach this officer and ask them for help? Or do they look like they’re militant?”
Clifford said he wants officers to be more selective about when they use the carrier vests.
He also wants to figure out a way to encourage officers to attend events while they’re not on duty — some way that won’t increase spending. He noted some officers already do.
Programs like the department’s basketball league have sparked interest in getting police teams together for other leagues, perhaps a cricket team to participate in the city’s Guyanese community.
“I want to start empowering our police officers to not only become community police officers in certain areas, but get there and stay there for a while,” Clifford said.
Overall, Clifford said he wants to empower officers with the right training and support.
He recalled receiving a text recently from an officer who previously worked closely with Clifford in the detective division. The text praised another detective for doing a good job on a series of gun seizure cases and expressed happiness to see that Clifford was giving the detective the ability to go out and do good work.
“I responded back to him that, ‘You’re going to see 2017 to be the age of empowerment at SPD.’ And I think that’s what it’s going to be. I want to empower people to go out there and do good work.”