Albany Police Staffing Concerns Aired

ALBANY — The city police force is down nearly 50 police officers, a situation that leaves law enforcement in dire straits, a police union leader says.

The shortages have forced officers to work overtime, which is mandated on the newest officers in the force, unless a senior officer volunteers, according to the police union contract.

“The younger officers are getting mandated at such an alarming rate we’re burning them out,” Albany Police Officers Union President Greg McGee said Thursday.

But just what constitutes adequate staffing in a big city department can be a complicated issue.

Vacancies in Albany’s department from retirements, suspensions and transfers still leave the force with double the number of officers compared to other Capital Region agencies. City populations, police officer functions, geography and the influx of visitors and workers, among other things, all affect the potential workload.

The Albany department has about 300 uniformed officers, while Troy and Schenectady have about half that number even when fully staffed.

In Troy and Schenectady, with populations of 49,374 and 65,575 respectively, have about half as many officers as Albany, which had a population of over 97,000, according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates.

Even with the vacant positions, Albany has 3.1 officers for every 1,000 city residents, well above the average number of officers for communities with a population between 50,000 and 100,000,  of 1.6 per 1,000 residents in 2016, according to Governing, a national media outlet covering politics, policy and management for state and local governments.

Troy and Schenectady have 2.6 officers and 2.3 officers per 1,000 residents respectively.

McGee noted, however, that when taking into account recruits and command staff – the latter being busy running day-to-day operations who don’t respond to emergencies – Albany has about 230 officers.

“There’s really no guarantee that we’re going to get (all) the recruits in the academy,” he said, noting some drop out or get jobs at other agencies upon graduation. “It absolutely is a staffing crisis.”

Albany has been criticized for the how large the department is.

The police force is budgeted for 342 sworn officers, but currently is down 45 officers – a number that includes three officers suspended after a violent confrontation on First Street in March, according to police spokesman Officer Steve Smith.

Training, special tasks

Mayor Kathy Sheehan said programs the department is committed to, like the neighborhood engagement unit, require more officers that other agencies may not schedule if they’re focused on responding to calls.

“When we created neighborhood engagement units, we couldn’t take away from the cohort of officers that need to be available to respond to calls for service,” she said, noting some units have gone without an engagement officer during the staffing shortage. “We want to get back up to full strength.”

The department also began doing its training academy in-house, which has limited how many recruits can be trained at one time, Sheehan said. For the next academy, the mayor said the department has found a place that will allow upwards of 40 recruits to be trained at once. The department is taking applications through Aug. 12.

Audio reviewed by the Times Union but not released to the public revealed Officer Luke Deer telling a supervisor he lost control during a March confrontation on First Street and had just worked two double shifts.

Police were caught on body camera footage pulling one black man out of a residence at 523 First St. and beating him as well as two other men after answering complaints about a loud party. The men were arrested on a slew of charges that were dismissed after the video came to light. The incident led to the April 2 arrest of Deer on a felony assault charge and a misdemeanor official misconduct charge. Two other officers were suspended. An Albany County grand jury is investigating.

While officers may be working more on overtime, the Albany department remains under budget, having spent about $3 million as of July 31, city figures show. The city budgeted nearly $4.2 million for overtime in 2019.

Retention issues

Police agencies across the country are facing recruitment and retention issues, police Chief Eric Hawkins said, and it’s something he reminds his officers of often.

“One of the things I tell my officers is that the fear and frustration that they’re feeling is the same concern and frustration that officers across the country are feeling. This is not just an Albany, New York issue,” he said. “They’re short-staffed, morale is low, they don’t feel that they’re getting the support they need and deserve.”

At the same time Albany struggles to attract and retain officers, the Guardian Angels – a New York City volunteer street-safety patrol group – returned to the capital city Thursday to assist police.

Hawkins said he welcomes the group as long as they follow department guidelines and policies.

McGee said the union regularly brainstorms with Hawkins on ways to improve morale and retain officers, from buying new equipment and uniforms to encouraging Albany officers to reach out to members at other agencies who may be looking to transfer.

The police officers’ union remains at a standstill in negotiations for a new contract with the city.  The detectives are creating their own bargaining unit and patrol officers also want to shift their representation to the Police Benevolent Association, issues that union leaders are waiting on the Public Employees Relations Board to rule on, McGee said. The current parent union is Council 82.

The union previously rejected a contract proposed by the city that would have covered officers through 2018 and provided raises. Instead, the union went to arbitration and last year was awarded no raises for 2014 and a 1 percent increase for 2015.

Sheehan said she wants to be able to hammer out a contract for police officers – especially since salaries must be negotiated and voted on by union members, but the internal union issues must be resolved first.

“I want nothing more than to have a contract, and I also want to ensure that we have competitive salaries for our officers,” she said.

From The Albany Times Union

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