With street shootings and high-profile gang trials making headlines, three mayoral candidates — Richard Cahill Jr., Hayes Clement and Shayne Gallo — have offered plans they say will help ease Kingston’s crime problem. But with an understaffed police force, tight budgets and union rules that limit flexibility in deploying police resources, the real challenge will be putting the plans into action.
Clement proposes stepping up community policing by creating a new unit dedicated to Midtown. Cahill is pushing a legal strategy to put pressure on gang members. Gallo promises to tackle juvenile crime through increased coordination of city, county and state agencies.
Clement, a relative newcomer to Kingston, looked to the past for inspiration. In the early 1990s, facing a wave of drug-related crime in Midtown, the Kingston police deployed a “neighborhood stabilization unit” that provided increased and highly visible police presence on the city’s most troubled streets.
Clement’s proposal for a “Neighborhood Engagement Team” follows that model with a call for a new squad of four uniformed cops and two detectives assigned full-time to community policing in Midtown. The team’s focus would be on creating a visible police presence, including walking posts. The goal, Clement said, would be for officers to get to know neighborhood residents and specific conditions. Under Clement’s plan, the team would also help tackle blight by taking on some code enforcement duties currently handled by fire department and public works staff.
“I haven’t heard one person say that this isn’t what we need,” said Clement. “There’s a pretty clear consensus that this is something we need to figure out how to do.”
That figuring will have to take into account the current PBA contract and a police force that has shrunk from 80 members in 2008 to 71 now. Kingston Police Chief Gerald Keller, who commanded the old neighborhood stabilization unit, said changes in the PBA contract instituted in the late 1990s make it more difficult to juggle cops’ assignments.
A few years ago, Keller tried to create a handpicked squad of four cops to focus on community policing in Midtown. He took the officers from the existing three shifts and planned to fill in the gaps using overtime money given to the department through the state’s Operation IMPACT anti-crime program. But the effort ran afoul of contract provisions which set out how many officers must be “assigned and available” to each shift. As a result, Keller said, he was forced to back off the concept of a dedicated Midtown squad and use the IMPACT money to assign officers randomly to carry out extra patrols in Midtown. Keller, who declined to comment specifically on any candidate’s proposals, added that even the lauded neighborhood stabilization unit had been short-lived because the drain on the department’s manpower had led to union grievances.
“You couldn’t keep that kind of manpower up in Midtown forever,” said Keller. “It was hard back then and it’s even harder now because of some of the contract language.”
Clement said that he understood the difficulty, and believed the answer lay in negotiation with the PBA, whose contract expires next year, to ease some of the scheduling restrictions.
“It will not be easy, it will take changes in the contract to accomplish this,” said Clement. “I’m quite cognizant of that, but it’s got to happen.”
Gallo also supports the concept of community policing in Midtown but, he said, Clement’s proposal fails to take into account the reality of the PBA contract and the difficulty of providing police service throughout the city. Gallo noted that deploying extra cops in Midtown would mean taking police off of patrols in other areas of the city. Meanwhile, he said it would take careful “good faith” negotiation with the PBA to obtain more flexible staffing policies.
“We have to look at the cost of reallocating those resources from other areas in the city and whether the PBA would agree to modifications in the work schedule,” said Gallo, a former labor attorney. “We really need to look at those issues before you can make it palatable and acceptable to the taxpayers and the officers.”
Gallo focuses on youth
Gallo’s own anti-crime platform calls getting the most out of existing resources, including county and state law enforcement while eliminating duplicate functions wherever possible. His proposal on youth crime, for example, calls for an inter-agency task force of police, social services staff and other officials who deal with wayward youth. The system would help ensure that juvenile offenders didn’t slip through the cracks between the Department of Social Services, Family Court and the police.
Similar coordination, he said, could free up enough resources to place additional cops on the street focused on community policing.
“We have the resources in place between the city, the county and the state agencies,” said Gallo. “But we have to maximize the efficiency of those resources.”
Cahill also supports a dedicated squad of cops to tackle crime in Midtown. He points out he pushed a similar proposal when he served on the Common Council in 2005 and when he ran for mayor in 2007. But, he said, he wants to take the anti-crime initiative further by taking a page from California, where authorities have long used civil courts to restrict gang activity.
Cahill’s plan calls for the use of gang injunctions — court orders that bar known gang members from engaging in activities ranging from selling drugs to simply throwing up gang signs in specific locations. The effort would involve identifying individual gang members and known gang hangouts. The gangsters would then be issued civil court orders barring them from engaging in the prohibited activities. Violators would face criminal contempt charges. In New York State, that’s a Class A misdemeanor which is upgraded to a felony for repeat offenders. Cahill, a lawyer and former Rensselaer County assistant district attorney, said that the plan would “make it as uncomfortable as possible” to be a gang member in Kingston while sending a message to impressionable youth.
“If they see these guys getting arrested all the time, just for hanging around with other gang members and flashing signs, it may make it a little bit less cool,” said Cahill.
Cahill conceded that the gang injunction plan had one flaw: It has never been tried inNew Yorkand it is far from clear that state courts would uphold the constitutionality of the plan in the face of opposition from civil liberties groups. But, he said, it was worth a try and even if it failed in court, would leave police with valuable trove of gang intelligence gained through the process of putting the injunction in place.
“You never know how New York courts are going to act,” said Cahill. “You need to balance civil liberties with public safety and it takes some very careful work. But if we don’t try we’ll never know.”