District Attorney Holley Carnright said last week he believes a lack of proactive policing in Midtown Kingston — and an increase in anti-police sentiment — has complicated law enforcement’s efforts to address violent crime and drug trafficking in the neighborhood.
But activist groups say friction between police and the black community in the city’s poorest census tract reflects ongoing issues of overzealous policing and institutional racism that have led to a near-total breakdown of trust between police and residents.
Carnright’s comments come as KPD detectives, assisted by state police and sheriff’s office investigators, work 12- to 18-hour days to solve two homicides which happened less than a week apart in Midtown. Police have said publicly that the investigation into at least one of the killings, the Oct. 26 shooting death of Daniel “DJ” Thomas, has been hampered by a lack of cooperation from witnesses to the crime.
Carnright said his office has made strides in recent years addressing violent crime and improving community safety by taking on gangs and drugs. But, he said, that progress was threatened by a new climate of anti-police sentiment pushed by activist groups and enabled by city government.
“That progress is ebbing right now,” said Carnright, who added that he had not voiced his concerns earlier because he did not want to be seen as attempting to influence political campaigns. “The political environment in Kingston, that anti-police environment, has impeded the work that we do.”
The activist group Rise Up Kingston has made police reform and accountability a staple of its activities since it formed in 2018. Last year, the group pushed for investigations into at least two incidents where young black men were tased by police after they were stopped by officers for field interviews or for allegedly violating city ordinances. (In both cases, the city’s police commission found that officers had acted within department guidelines).
More recently, the group produced a report citing disproportionate KPD use of tasers on people of color. The group is also pushing for more civilian oversight of the Kingston Police Department and an end to what they believe is over-policing and racial profiling in the black community.
In response, Mayor Steve Noble and Police Chief Egidio Tinti introduced reforms, including a requirement that the police commission review all instances of use of force by officers, whether or not they result in a civilian complaint. The department has also introduced body cameras and hosted a series of police-community forums to engage with residents.
But Carnright said he believes one byproduct of that activism has been a reluctance on the part of city police to aggressively target crime in Midtown. Carnright said initiatives like “hot-spot policing” — where police use crime data analysis to identify problem blocks, buildings or neighborhoods and then deploy an array of resources to address the issue — had fallen by the wayside. Kingston cops, the DA said, are increasingly operating in a reactive mode: Answering radio calls and investigating reported crimes, rather than carrying out the kind of proactive policing that he believes is necessary to prevent violent crimes before they occur.
Carnright said he had heard from members of the KPD that they had been advised not to engage in proactive policing in Midtown and added that the lack of aggressive policing in Kingston was having a negative impact on efforts to address violence and drug dealing countywide.
“As Kingston goes, so goes Ulster County,” said Carnright. “Law enforcement needs to have a strong presence in Kingston and I don’t think that’s the environment right now.”
Chief does not agree
KPD Chief Tinti denied last week that there had been any directive to his officers to back off of any law enforcement activity in Midtown or anywhere else in the city. Tinti pointed to initiatives like foot patrols and a car dedicated to community policing initiatives as evidence that the department was committed to enforcing the law citywide. But Tinti acknowledged that the department had shifted away from the kind of months-long drug investigations targeting dozens of low-level drug dealers that were common a few years ago. He attributed the shift to a lack of resources and said his narcotics detectives continued to carry out undercover investigations on a case-by-case basis.
“Officers know that we are looking at their behavior, their conduct, their language,” said Tinti. “But at no time was anyone told, don’t go in there, don’t do that.”
But Kingston Police Officer Brian Aitkin, president of the Kingston PBA, said this week he’s seen increasing reluctance on the part of rank-and-file cops to engage in proactive policing activities like traffic stops, field interviews and enforcement of city ordinances. That reluctance, he said, was rooted in the belief that city officials would not support them in use-of-force cases. Aitkin said Kingston cops had been dismayed that officers in the tasing cases cited by Rise Up Kingston had not received more support from the chief, the mayor and the police commission, despite clear evidence that they had acted within department guidelines.
“It’s not something that’s said directly at a lineup or anything, it’s the undertones, just a general feeling that if we go out and do [proactive policing] and it goes to shit we’re not going be supported by the mayor and the chief,” said Aitkin. “We have good, aggressive, smart street cops who want to be out there catching bad guys but they’re just answering calls now.”
But if Carnright and Aitkin see Kingston cops as doing too little proactive enforcement in Midtown many neighborhood residents see that type of policing as exacerbating the lack of trust between the community and police. They believe city ordinances like open container laws and park curfews are used to harass young black men and that low-level drug prosecutions disproportionately target their community and contribute to, rather than address, issues of poverty and lack of opportunity.
“Honestly, I don’t think most people in this community see any value in what they do,” said Rise Up Kingston organizer Lisa Lent-Royer.
Lent-Royer, whose own son was shot and seriously wounded this summer in a drive-by shooting just a block from where Thomas was killed, said the mistrust between the community and police extended to police efforts to address violent crime. Many black residents of Midtown do not believe that working with police will result in justice or that police will keep them safe if they do agree to testify. Others worry that simply providing police with a description of a suspect could result in the abuse or incarceration of fellow community member simply for matching the profile.
C.J. King not forgotten
Perhaps no case looms larger in police community relations than the 2009 murder of Charles “C.J.” King Jr. King was gunned down on Cedar Street after he testified to a grand jury about a shootout on Henry Street involving members of the Sex Money Murder set of the Bloods gang. Four SMM members received long prison terms in connection with what prosecutors described as a concerted effort to identify and silence the witness.
It’s an article of faith among many Midtown residents that King’s status as a witness was exposed by a KPD detective who was seeking to ensure that he would show up to testify at trial. Police have denied that claim and no evidence has ever emerged to support it, but the narrative has taken firm root and led many residents to believe the police can’t or won’t protect them if they do cooperate.
“People don’t trust the cops because they’ve been brutalized by them,” said Lent-Royer. “They’ve seen how they act and how they don’t protect people.”
The Rev. G. Modele Clarke of New Progressive Baptist Church said he witnessed the lack of trust and outright hostility by some members of the community toward cops after he helped organize a series of police-community forums in 2014 following a series of incidents around the nation where unarmed black men were shot by police. Clarke recalled the dialogue as respectful and to some extent productive, but said the police-community divide remains stubbornly persistent.
“The level of trust wasn’t there, not because of what was said here, but because despite the back-and-forth there were still a few police officers who were showing a lack of restraint in their interactions with young people,” said Clarke. “It seems to me that what we had built up over those few years disintegrated rapidly.”
Clarke said issues like a lack of black and Latino officers, a sense that cops on the beat were detached from the communities they serve and the misconduct of a minority of officers contributed to the lack of understanding. But activists like Lent-Royer take a more radical view: Policing in America was instituted to enforce racial and economic inequality, therefore no solution involving police is likely to restore trust.
The Rise Up Kingston activists favor solutions like community-based civilian response teams trained in conflict resolution and restorative justice programs to prevent and address violence and other community concerns. The group’s response to the recent homicides has been a series of “Increase the Peace” vigils to encourage community building and commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution.
“Gun violence in most cases is an act of survival,” said Rise Up communications and development director Stephanie Alinsug. “So we need ask ourselves, what was that person needing at that point in time and how can we show them other ways.”
Chief is optimistic
Tinti acknowledged both the police-community divide and the sense among some members of his department that anti-police sentiment was a growing and potentially dangerous phenomenon. But Tinti said he sees glimmers of hope, like a video depicting one of his officers having a friendly footrace with neighborhood kids in Midtown. He said he’s also hopeful about ongoing efforts to engage the community at forums, block parties and other neighborhood events. Tinti added that the department’s “Submit a Tip” service, which allows for anonymous two-way communication between police and members of the community had been successful, demonstrating that whatever issues existed between his cops and the community they serve, people were still willing to come forward to help address violent crime.
“Even if they don’t want to be seen talking to a cop, or they don’t trust a particular officer, people still want a safe community.”