Accountability: End “The Police Policing the Police” in Albany

By Janet Rothacker

Police reformers’ calls for “accountability” for police officer actions are most urgent when people are physically harmed or killed by the police. A determination must be made regarding whether individual officer misconduct and/or departmental shortcomings in policy, practice, training, supervision, or leadership contributed to an unwarranted use of force.

If individual officers are determined to have violated department policy, they must be appropriately disciplined to ensure that the inappropriate behavior does not occur again. If policy, practice, training, or supervision are found wanting, the systemic deficiencies must be corrected. If a failure of leadership contributed to the unwarranted use of force, elected officials must reiterate their expectations of the department’s administration.

Accountability is largely dependent on who is involved in making police department policy; who is responsible for enforcing policy; and who applies penalties for breaching department policy. When the police department alone makes policy, enforces policy, and punishes policy infractions, the community is subjected to “the police policing the police.” The City of Albany has taken steps in the twenty-first century to involve the citizenry more fully in matters of police accountability, but the implementation of those measures has fallen woefully short.

The Albany Police Department is almost exclusively in control of making policy. The community has recently been peripherally involved in APD policy-making through the Albany Community Policing Advisory Committee. ACPAC was created in 2010, when newly appointed Police Chief Steven Krokoff embraced the philosophy of community policing. When fully configured, the Albany Community Policing Advisory Committee (ACPAC) has 25 members, most of whom are appointed by Common Council members representing Albany’s 15 wards. The Mayor and the Common Council President each appoint one person. The Police Chief appoints four, and up to four members are appointed by a subcommittee of ACPAC members.

The Albany Police Department has occasionally sought input from ACPAC on new policies (e.g., police-worn body cameras). However, ACPAC reports that the APD has at times unilaterally, internally modified a policy that has previously been reviewed by them. ACPAC’s citizen members are all unpaid volunteers, and ACPAC has never been officially authorized by vote of the Albany Common Council. Absent a clear, official mandate from the Common Council, the extent to which this body can serve as a vehicle through which to ensure accountability is constrained by an apparent diminishing APD commitment to community policing, and the Committee’s lack of resources.

Two bodies are responsible for enforcing adherence to APD policies: the APD internal Office of Professional Standards (OPS - what some police departments call “internal affairs”), and the external Community Police Review Board (CPRB). The average citizen’s understanding of how OPS operates is hampered by the lack of transparency of the APD in disseminating its policies; the arcane manner in which policies are written; and the absolute secrecy in which OPS investigations are held. The “Use of Force” policy, for example, is nebulously-worded, obfuscating precisely which tactics are prohibited. It is also riddled with escape clauses that help  absolve an officer (in the eyes of the APD’s Office of Professional Standards) if he/she does employ a questionable tactic.

The Albany Community Police Review Board was first established in 2000. During the late 1990’s several widely publicized police encounters with African Americans contributed to increased community/police tensions and prompted calls for a citizen review board. In 1994, Capital District Citizen Action and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) called for the creation of an independent civilian review board. After several years, in 2000 the Albany Common Council passed legislation to establish the “Citizens’ Police Review Board.”

The Center for Law and Justice said that the board created by the legislation lacked the independence needed to earn the community's respect, and did not have a budget for the board or a residency requirement for members. In 2002, NYCLU released an evaluation of the first year of operations of the Albany Citizens Review Board, finding that of the 25 complaints filed by the end of 2001, “the Board accepted the findings made by OPS with respect to every complaint reviewed.” The evaluation suggested several modifications that would, among other things, grant the Board the power to conduct investigations, and to increase the openness and information available to the public.

Though modifications have been made over the years, criticisms regarding the Board’s lack of independence from the Albany Police Department persist. The Times Union on June 5, 2020 reported that the Common Council and the Mayor have finally agreed to meaningful reform of the review board, including giving subpoena powers for city police records to the city’s Community Police Review Board. The Albany Police Reform Collaborative, scheduled to submit its recommendations to the Common Council in early 2021, has one of its “Working Groups” dedicated to “Civilian Oversight.”

Perhaps, through the passage of legislation currently pending before the Common Council and initiatives proposed by the Police Reform Collaborative, Albany will be able to put an end to “the police policing the police.”

© 2020 by The Time for Reckoning Working Group