SCHENECTADY — Hundreds of law enforcement officials from across the state gathered last week at a conference in Albany designed to share strategies for crime reduction and strengthening community relationships.
The effort, now in its sixth year, organized by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), is part of the agency’s Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) initiative, which is geared toward reducing violence in upstate areas with high rates of violence.
The Schenectady Police Department sent a contingent to the three-day event to glean insight from law enforcement professionals, researchers and academics.
The symposium focused on bolstering technical support for what’s known as “evidence-based and data-driven strategies.”
“It’s focused on the idea of using research and looking at research and what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t,” said Michael C. Green, executive deputy commissioner of DCJS.
Those strategies include “hotspot policing,” gun violence deterrence and street outreach practices.
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford was among the 500 law enforcement officials who attended.
“We’re in 150 percent into everything they’re doing,” Clifford said. “We’re proof that it works.”
The strategies, Clifford said, are helpful in continuing to refine how the department’s crime analysts gather and interpret data.
“We can’t just analyze data on the analytical side,” Clifford said. “We need to have commanders in place who understand how to look at data, employ resources and deploy strategy.”
Hotspot policing seeks to identify areas of high criminal concentrations.
“If studied over time, small locations are driving more than their share [of crime],” Green said.
Schenectady police have identified hotspots at several “micro-locations” in the city, including a stretch of Crane Street in the city’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood between Ostander and Yorkston streets where criminal activity complaints and quality-of-life issues have become endemic.
As part of the strategy, police also flag conditions that lend themselves to criminal behavior — poor lighting, vacant storefronts or unmonitored stairwells, for instance — and weigh how to mitigate them in order to discourage illegal activity.
The strategy doesn’t necessarily mean flooding the area with cops; it's also designed to allow law enforcement to engage with neighborhood residents to better understand the community.
As part of the city’s street outreach, the department works with messengers in the community, including former gang members or those who have been incarcerated, to engage with people authorities have identified as being at-risk for committing crimes.
That means working with people like Jamel Muhammad, who spent 17 1/2 years behind bars for drug trafficking and now runs the anti-violence initiative 1Life2Live, which aims to stop the spread of street violence and retaliatory shootings by persuading those likely to perpetuate it to make different choices.
Green said the idea of evidence-based work didn’t exist when he entered the field 33 years ago, and has only really taken off in the past 5 to 10 years.
“It is a field that’s really evolved,” he said.
Crime rates have been on a decade-long decline statewide.
Between 2009 and 2018, there were 101,371 fewer crimes reported, according to a DCJS report released last month.
The drop represents a 22.5 percent reduction in the volume of reported crime over the 10-year period.
“By index crime rates, New York is the safest large state in the country,” Green said. “It’s a pretty significant decline … we’re at historic lows in terms of crime.”
Green said he can’t point to any one particular factor, but likes to think his agency has played a role.
In hosting the symposium, DCJS aims to encourage all law enforcement agencies to embrace these strategies and practices.
Through the Gun Involved Violence Elimination program, the agency administers $13.3 million in funding for training and technical assistance, as well as personnel, overtime and equipment costs — a level of assistance that’s rare nationwide, Green said.
In Schenectady, a recent DCJS report stated crime dropped by nearly 31 percent in the city between 2009 and 2018, and saw sharp decreases in homicides, robberies, property crimes, burglary and larceny.
However, violent crime increased by a net 4.9 percent over the 10-year period, making the city one of just three GIVE participating jurisdictions out of 20 that saw an increase (the others were Binghamton and Jamestown).
Aggravated assault also saw a 37 percent increase over the same time period.
Conference participants also discussed how to improve community relations in an era where police relationships with communities can be strained.
Presentations explored the issue of reconciliation, which focuses on acknowledging and apologizing for past harms, and its place in policing.
A key speaker was Louis Dekmar, chief of a county police department in Georgia. When he found out about his department’s role in the lynching of a black teenager in 1940, he apologized to the community and started a conversation about moving forward.
Green said fractures can remain in communities long after the original incident, which leads to longstanding institutional stigma.
“That uniform carries a certain meaning from firsthand experience or experience that happened in prior generations,” Green said.
Clifford said he thinks often about the city Police Department’s role in the community and past flaws.
He said it bothers him when people bring up previous misdeeds by former city cops who are no longer on the force.
“It’s a challenge every day to retelling the community we are in this together and we want to meet their expectations,” he said.
Clifford looks at the relationship between the police force and the community under the lens of a deposit system.
City police will keep making positive deposits, he said, because it is inevitable unforeseen future events will stress that relationship with the community.
“We have to hope and trust that those deposits cover the withdrawals that come out of there,” Clifford said.
He pointed at the death of Andrew Kearse in police custody in 2017.
The Bronx resident, who was apprehended after fleeing a traffic stop, became unresponsive en route to the station after informing an officer he couldn't breathe and called out for help numerous times.
The mayor has yet to sign off on a wrongful death settlement filed by his widow, which officials have said is $1.37 million. The officer was not charged in the incident and is back on the force.
As an agency, city police didn’t get severe backlash, Clifford said, which he believes can be attributed to that deposit system.
“The community knows we’re working hard every day,” he said. “It’s terrible what happened, but not indicative of problems in the department.
Community buy-in is essential, he said.
“It takes a community to keep a community safe,” Clifford said.