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What you need to know for 04/29/2017

Schenectady must ensure police handle situations correctly

Schenectady must ensure police handle situations correctly

There are many reasons why citizens should find this report disturbing.
Schenectady must ensure police handle situations correctly
Mayor Gary McCarthy
Photographer: Marc Schultz

You don't have to have 30 years in law enforcement to know how this incident should have been handled.

Our May 2016 editorial

But regarding the May incident involving Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and the two women in the van that he pursued to the police station late that night, the mayor and the police officers involved handled it exactly the wrong way every step of the way.

A report issued by Saratoga County District Attorney Karen A. Heggen late Friday afternoon concluded what we all pretty much figured out seven months ago when the incident occurred.

That whatever happened that night outside the police station wouldn't result in any criminal charges or traffic violations, against either the mayor or the two women in the fan.

We knew that because police didn't do what we would expect them to do, and what many of us had seen police do, at every traffic incident we've ever been involved in.

Dealing with two motorists involved in a disagreement is about as routine for most police officers as directing traffic at a parade.

When both drivers are agitated and vocal and accusing each other of things, you separate them and conduct separate interviews. That would be especially true considering the hysterical, fearful tone of the 911-call your dispatcher had just received from the women in the van.

If it's 1 o'clock in the morning, and especially if one motorist accuses the other of being intoxicated, one would expect a police officer to take the comment seriously enough and give that driver a breath test and a field sobriety test to determine if he's been drinking — especially if one of the officers at the scene thinks he might smell alcohol. Maybe for good measure, you test them both. Police at the scene of this incident didn't do any of that.

According to Ms. Heggen's report, they talked to the women in the van and the mayor for a few minutes, then let them all go home. No formal interview. No written statements taken. Police didn't even ask to see the mayor's license, which is the very first thing a police officer asks from anybody when encountering a motorist.

One officer admitted he might have smelled alcohol coming from the mayor, but everyone was sent home before he could make a case to pursue it further.

That's one problem with the way this was handled. But it's not even close to the worst violation that happened that night.

Everyone at that scene knew that one of the people involved was the mayor. The mayor didn't have to "use his mayor status" to actively make the point for them in order to be guilty of throwing his weight around.

His stature is unspoken and they all knew it. For the officers at the scene, that's their boss' boss, the highest government official in the city for which they're employed.

They say that perception is reality. And these officers should have known how the public might perceive it if they appeared to give the mayor a break.

And therefore, as the report concluded, the officers on the scene, and especially the officer in charge, Lt. Wesley McGhee — immediately upon recognizing that the mayor was involved — should have called in another police agency to deal with the matter.

State Police don't answer to the mayor. County sheriff's deputies don't answer to the mayor. But city police do. And therefore they had no business conducting this investigation.

Remove even the perception of a conflict of interest. The mayor, himself a longtime law enforcement official before he got into politics, couldn't have objected to his officers taking this step.

He must have realized that his mere presence at the scene created a potential conflict of interest for his officers. If he was any kind of law enforcement official, even in his past life, he would have suggested that they call in an outside police force himself, knowing the pickle this put them in. The result of this investigation was what we all saw coming from the get-go. A muddled report of a muddled incident and no charges being brought against the mayor or any of the officers.

No report. No breath test. No proof of a crime. Just some officers who should have handled it differently. Everyone go back to your homes. Nothing to see here.

But there is something to see here. And something to be done.

If city police don't have a procedure in place for dealing with potential conflicts like this involving public officials -- be it the mayor, members of the city council, a member of the state legislator or a congressman -- then one needs to be specifically articulated and put into place.

Chief Eric Clifford probably can't discipline anyone based on this report. But he sure as heck can make sure that if any officer under his command ever handles a similar incident in this manner in the future, there will be consequences.

Put it in writing. Negotiate it with the union. Whatever you've got to do.

We don't know if there was a miscarriage of justice here. But we don't know that there wasn't, either.

And the mayor. He should have known better not to pursue the van. He should have called police from his home, given a description of the vehicle, and went to bed. He said he was potentially witnessing garbage-picking, not a murder.

There are many reasons why citizens should find this report disturbing. And there are plenty of reasons why they should go to the next City Council meeting and demand action to make sure it can't happen again.

Everyone at that scene knew that one of the people involved was the mayor. The mayor didn't have to "use his mayor status" to actively make the point for them in order to be guilty of throwing his weight around. His stature is unspoken and they all knew it.

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