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For Schenectady police, no ordinary nights

For Schenectady police, no ordinary nights

Officers look for positive interactions
For Schenectady police, no ordinary nights
Schenectady police Sgt. Jeffrey McCutcheon on patrol in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood Wednesday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY — It was the quiet before the storm.

Sgt. Jeffrey McCutcheon of the Schenectady Police Department was midway through his patrol shift the day before the Fourth of July.

It was quiet, he said. Atypical. He looked at the dashboard-mounted laptop known as an “MDT” displaying pending calls and which officers were on duty. 

Most of the calls were listed as “clear.”

“You hardly ever see that,” McCutcheon said.

An occasional firework interrupted the quiet. But it was almost as if people were saving their gunpowder — literally — for the next day, typically a bonanza of illegal rockets exploding across the city. 

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS 

Armed with a bulletproof vest and body camera, McCutcheon patrols citywide and doesn’t confine himself to one of the city’s eight designed zones.

As such, he’s familiar with all of the city’s hot spots, unique neighborhood issues and individual characters, including the figure who appeared to be engaging in questionable behavior on Veeder Avenue.

McCutcheon eyeballed him as he slowly cruised past. MDT revealed the person had racked up at least 130 interactions with the department in recent years.

While high-profile cases like murders, stabbings and standoffs tend to dominate headlines, the sergeant’s job largely consists of interacting with the community, serving as an impromptu teacher, therapist, and of course, cop, all rolled into one.

Another man, unsteady on his feet, shambled up State Street, paused in front of a bodega and flopped his considerable bulk onto a nearby stoop.

McCutcheon rolled down his window and asked his companion if the man was all right.

He was. Just drunk. The man did a Rocky impression, his female companion cackled and McCutcheon drove away.

Another man approached and spun a wide-eyed yarn about being cited for littering downtown while sitting on the newly restored concrete landscaping. 

A call came in about five kids jumping on cars at the corner of Congress and Fifth. 

MDT indicated there were no witnesses, which can make these types of calls tough. The sergeant cited a recent report of a suspect with a firearm. But without witnesses to offer additional information, officers can be stonewalled upon arrival, allowing suspects to evade apprehension. 

Five kids sat glumly on the curb. The apparent ringleader, a girl who said she was from Detroit and in town visiting relatives, readily admitted to the offense. 

“You’re not supposed to be standing on peoples’ cars,” McCutcheon said.

She shrugged. He got out of his patrol SUV and gave the kids a pep talk.

The girl from Detroit asked for $1.

“If you stay out of trouble, I’ll come back tomorrow and give you $1,” he told her. 

The kids waved goodbye, asking reporters to plug their Snapchat accounts.

For McCutcheon, that’s the core of community policing: fostering positive interactions one at a time.

Officers are a regular presence at city schools as part of the department’s neighborhood engagement program. 

“Usually kids are always nice,” he said. “I like getting out and talking to the neighborhood kids."

GROUPS ATTRACT BIGGER GROUPS

The SUV purred to life and the sergeant cruised through the neighborhoods. Some people waved, many glared, others eyed the vehicle warily, including sex workers shooting backwards furtive glances. 

McCutcheon stopped at Mr. Discount at the corner of Crane Street and 6th Avenue where an unoccupied car idled as the bass rattled. 

“If it’s stolen, you’re responsible,” he told the owner after he emerged. 

Mr. Discount can present quality-of-life issues, he said. But problems are nowhere as bad as the now-defunct Mr. Chubby’s, subject of hundreds of police calls, which was ultimately torn down and replaced with a library.

“Groups of people cause bigger groups of people,” McCutcheon said.

He navigated his SUV through the waning daylight, past the clumps of people walking in ones and twos, sitting on porches, and past the bus from New York City disgorging passengers at the corner of Nott Terrace and State Street.

He circled back to Hulett Street.

“This is the majority of what our patrol officers do,” he said. “They’ll drive down this street 30 times.”

McCutcheon paused at Jerry Burrell Park, which was deserted.

“Usually this place is packed,” he said.

While violent crime in Schenectady has edged up in recent years, the city has seen a dramatic drop in overall crime over the past decade, seeing reductions in burglaries, robberies, property crimes and murders.

The city logged just one homicide in 2018, down from 10 in 2015. And there has been just one so far this year, an unsolved shooting in late-January.

The reasons are myriad, McCutcheon said, including better police work and improved technology. He pointed at security cameras dotting the neighborhood: on poles, mounted to buildings and on sites unseen. 

CATFISHED

Encountering “Emotionally Disturbed Persons,” or EDPs, is a big part of the job.

Earlier on his shift, McCutcheon transported a man to Ellis Hospital who was upset about being alone on the Fourth of July.

“You see a lot around the holidays,” McCutcheon said.

The radio crackled with a new EDP. “Assaulted,” said the dispatcher. “Doesn’t want to give out more information.” 

McCutcheon met a pair of patrol officers at Schonowee Village, a public housing complex, and ventured inside the labyrinth. 

A man emerged with a strange story.

He told McCutcheon he was chatting with a romantic interest online, someone he thought was a female. But he realized he had been “catfished,” which is when someone pretends to be someone else online.

The man said he awoke that morning to find himself being sexually assaulted by a man, the same person who had been stalking him. 

Then an organized catfish group tried to blackmail him. 

“But I told them I live in the projects and don’t have anything,” he said.

The man’s narrative jumped around and McCutcheon probed for additional information.

“It’s a mystery,” said the man, who said he felt suicidal and called 911 because he was worried about getting AIDS. 

McCutcheon asked if he wanted to go to Ellis Hospital for an evaluation. He did, and the officers whisked him away.

Consent is key, McCutcheon said.

SNAP JUDGMENTS

Minutes later, he found himself at Devine Street, where a woman said a house guest visiting from New York City had stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia and was holed up inside after acting erratically. 

She asked if city police could take him away. Not necessarily, McCutcheon said. 

The woman warned that the man would try to present himself as normal and that McCutcheon should not let himself be fooled.

“We can’t promise anything,” he said. 

Snap judgment calls can be difficult, he said: “People go from normal to just flipping out.” 

He pointed out a number of stressors that could quickly destabilize the situation: Loud music, neighbors milling about, children underfoot, a large dog — the general anxiety of police presence in the neighborhood.

It was now twilight and light drained from the sky. McCutcheon was alone, but he said it wasn’t unnerving.

Backup, he said, always comes quickly in Schenectady.

When his fellow officers arrived, they entered the dark interior of the home, where the man appeared to be normal.

“If he starts acting up again, give us a call,” McCutcheon told the woman as he left.

Moments before sundown, the sergeant cruised by Steinmetz Park, where a group had gathered in a pavilion. He paused. The music was slightly loud, he admitted. And it was nearly dark. 

He motioned two people over. 

“When the sun goes down, you’ve got to leave,” he told them. “Go at your own pace … and turn down the music.”

MDT lit up: EDPs, loud music — the vague-yet-threatening “neighborhood trouble.”

Two girls screaming.

“Even if they’re nothing, these cars are still getting tied up,” McCutcheon said.

He cruised through the GE Realty Plot, where stately homes loomed behind well-maintained lawns, and then back to Hamilton Hill, where a call came in about a two-car crash. 

By now, the night was cracking with activity: cracks, pops and fizzles from illicit fireworks.

McCutcheon activated his lights and siren and arrived at a parking garage above the Museum of Innovation and Science where the two cars were parked.

A woman paced with a cellphone as medics questioned the vehicle's two occupants. A man sat in the other vehicle, staring blankly ahead while clutching a handful of paper out the window.

Fireworks blossomed from Scotia and Rotterdam and first responders shook their heads about Thursday.

“It’s going to be crazy,” said a paramedic as he walked by.

McCutcheon left and went to a report of a domestic disturbance. A woman answered the door and told officers her ex-boyfriend had fled. She didn’t know where.

He took another cruise through Hamilton Hill. As he turned a corner, he caught sight of a man lighting off a sparkler.

“You know you’re not supposed to do that,” he said.

The man apologized, a sheepish look on his face. 

McCutcheon’s shift was nearly over and he prepared to return to Liberty Street headquarters.

Then a call came in.

The man on Devine was acting up again.

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