[JK: Lew Benton sent me his thoughts on the recent controversies surrounding the police and Black Lives Matter. In his piece he refers to a recent editorial by the Times Union. I share his assessment of this shrill opinion piece. Here is a link to the editorial. Lew served as Commissioner of Public Safety for four terms from 1988 to 1995]
I noted, first with interest and then with concern, the various reactions to Comm. Dalton’s and Assist. Police Chief Catone’s initial characterization of a June 26 early morning fight on Caroline Street and how some of their comments have been interpreted.
Since then, racial tensions have flared as members of Saratoga BLM and the police interact and BLM grievances are aired at City Council meetings and in the press. Time to de-escalate, cool down and divorce personalities from the issues at hand.
And is it valid to conflate – as some have – increased Caroline Street violence with social justice issues and racism and, in so doing, distract from addressing either? If that question is not being asked then perhaps we are just chasing our tails.
Now, just a few days ago, comes news that some participants in a July street protest precipitated by BLM grievances have been arrested. Most of those arrested have been charged with simple disorderly conduct, a violation, for blocking or otherwise interfering with motorists on downtown streets. A few others face misdemeanor charges for alleged conducts that only serve to corrode the movements legitimacy.
Some have already called to question the timing and manner of the arrests, what authority authorized them and why, as reported, warrants, once issued, were not served sooner. But assuming the County DA played a role in the decision to request warrants her office will be responsible for prosecuting the cases. Interestingly, the DA’s and the City Court’s role in all this seems to have escaped the same scrutiny the police and public safety leadership have faced.
It will be interesting and telling to learn how the DA proceeds with this prosecution, if indeed she does. Perhaps the city court might view the entire affair as an opportunity to encourage (require) a mediation that thus far BLM has rejected.
On Friday the Albany Times Union editorial board weighed in.
After hedging their bets with a disclaimer assuring the public that “We are not endorsing the behavior that the people who were arrested are accused of …”, the editorial board launches into a full throated assault on the police, the city’s public safety administration and the city council. Their crimes, according to the editors, include the “selective” abuse of the police power, intimidation and violation of the civil rights of protestors.
Then, for good measure, they call the administration “nasty”, “petty”, “authoritarian” and “unbecoming” before offering up their solution. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the city council had already attempted – apparently unsuccessfully – to broker a mediation and outreach.
While the editorial board’s self-righteous name calling may have given its members some immediate gratification, I doubt it will do much to calm the water or allow for an honest effort at resolution. In the current environment here and elsewhere, name calling seems to be the go to strategy for addressing difficult problems so I guess the TU board can be forgiven for signing on.
The June Caroline Street brawl, reportedly involving 15 to 20, resulted in the stabbing of a 26 year-old, the discharge of a “ghost” gun and the suggestion of possible “gang” involvement. Serious stuff and fraught with serious consequences, including potential injuries to police officers and bystanders, the risk of escalation, unfounded allegations of police misconduct and the attended risk of municipal liability.
But the June 28 press conference veered into some heavy oncoming traffic. Criminal justice reform, police defunding, a growing public indifference to or hostility toward police, demonstrators demanding racial justice and police reform, and “gang” influences, were referenced as possible contributors to the street violence.
Over the last several years there have been many, many violent incidents on Caroline Street and environs, several resulting in serious injury and, in at least three cases, deaths. The greater community has in large part looked the other way because, I suspect, the episodic violence was contained to a relatively small area and had little impacted most of us.
But the deputy police chief’s June 28 comments gave cause for heightened concern and the need for a corresponding and proportionate response. And the proliferation of gun violence so evident in other cities in our region only adds, I’m sure, to John’s legitimate concern and obvious frustration.
The more recent homicide on Caroline Street only affirms the deputy chief’s concerns.
When the knives and the guns come out, it is long past time to look again at the Caroline Street culture, what real dangers it presents and the untenable position it puts the police and the city in.
Police agencies and local governments are frequently suspected of playing down or suppressing information about the seriousness and risks of such events lest they harm the community’s image or call to question its ability to maintain order and safety.
That didn’t happen on June 28. The deputy chief and the commissioner did not sugar coat the June 26 Caroline Street violence. Rather, they shared the reasons for their increased concern, emphasized the need for a strategic plan to ensure the safety of those drawn to the Caroline Street scene and the role of the entire community in effecting it.
Some heard raciest undertones in their comments and pounced. The central, intended message was lost, or at least subordinated, in the ensuing scrum.
It was legitimate to look to some of these hot buttons as aggravating influences – particularly possible gang activity and hostility toward the police – other references triggered a backlash. The Times Union editorial board deemed some statements so egregious that it called for the deputy chief and the commissioner to resign.
But if every public official and office holder resigned because of an intemperate statement born of frustration and made in the heat of the moment, none would be left to serve and few would be willing to take their place. Conversely, if every news reporter or editorial writer who has gotten a little too far out over their skis in a rush to judgement were required to resign we would have no news outlets.
And in spite of the deputy chief’s temporizing July 14 statement, the local BLM organization staged a demonstration that culminated in several arrests, subsequent police stops, increased tensions and a chaotic city council meeting.
Different City administrations have attempted to keep the lid on the Caroline Street. pressure cooker. Many years ago a 8 PM to 4 AM overlapping special patrol was implemented which, I recall, helped tamp down violent outbreaks.
Other strategies were considered. A public safety initiative to close bars at 2 AM rather than 4 AM was strenuously resisted by bar operators and ultimately dismissed by an indifferent, mulish County Board of Supervisors.
Pre-peak season meetings with the police, bar operators, private security and the SLA, sponsored by public safety, sought to lessen the occasions of violent and other criminal behavior.
I recall riding, over 26 plus years ago, on patrol with then Officer Catone late at night on Caroline Street during the height of the season. Then, as now, the goal was to roll back, calm dicey situations before they got out of hand. What I experienced then was good, ethical policing conducted with discretion, common sense and a cool demeanor.
Still, even a greater police presence designed to deter such street crime begs the more fundamental question of cause and effect.
What really drives the too frequent downtown lawlessness and occasion of violence? Booze, street drug use, diminished inhibition, alcohol fueled bravado, mob mentality, less fear of potential legal and social consequences, simple peer pressure. A “What Happens in Las Vegas, Stays in Las Vegas” mind set.
Add guns to the mix and we gain a better understanding of the deputy chief’s concern. Personal experience informs that a concoction made of booze, street drugs and guns is a recipe for violence. And why would anyone have a legitimate reason to go armed onto Caroline Street if they were just out for a night on the town and some innocent fun?
We rely on the police to protect and serve the community. When they are forced to assume the role of Caroline Street “babysitters” until the clock strikes 4:00 AM and a caravan of drunk drivers leave town, their ability to respond to other needs or emergencies is diminished and the potential to be drawn into a confrontation increases.
It is essential that, as John Catone urged, we help define and support a community based plan to meet growing violent downtown episodes. Following the summer when the city has benefit of this season’s experience, the type and number of incidents compared to past years and knowledge of any changing influences driving outbreaks of violence, would seem the best time to develop such a plan.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Police find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
The many high profile police killings of Black men and women and some responses to BLM demonstrations around the country allow (encourage) many to paint all police with the same brush, a stereotyping of the many because of the sins of the relatively few.
We seek out evidence to affirm acquired bias and then apply it to an entire class. A Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, murders a Black man, and all police officers are compromised, their actions questioned and their motives suspect.
Negative stereotypes cut both ways and die hard and too many bad police, poor policing practices and failure to cull racism from the ranks in many police departments across the nation only give them more credence.
And some of the so-called tough on crime, law and order political crowd have attacked the police from a different angle. They assail, for example, their response to the January mob assault on the US Capitol, by labeling insurrectionists and common thugs “Patriots.”
A Georgia congressman refuses to shake the hand of a Metro DC police officer who fought to protect the House Chamber. And the former president who instigated the attack continues to condone and even praise those who assaulted the police that day.
Many in that crowd taunted and hurled racist epithets at Black members of the Capital Police.
How can such stereotyping of police because of incidents of unjustified deadly force and racial profiling on one hand, and right wing instigated and condoned attacks on them on the other, not make policing a Caroline Street environment or a BLM demonstration more difficult and potentially more dangerous. Or, as on the evening of July 14, how does a demonstration seemingly designed and intended to bait the police and draw them into a confrontation do anything other than further already hardened opposing positions?
Of the demonstration John Kaufman wrote:
“The announced purpose of the July 14, 2021, protest was to secure an apology from Assistant Police Chief John Catone for some unfortunate remarks he made at a press conference on June 28. His conciliatory statement issued on July 14 was deemed insufficient by the leaders of Black Lives Matter. I don’t think anyone expected Catone to actually issue an apology. The ostensible goal of the demonstration was then to educate the public regarding Catone’s original remarks in order to show proof that the Saratoga Springs Police Department is a racist institution.”
I know John Catone. He is not a racist. Calling or suggesting an institution or its leadership is “racist” does not make it so.
The Question of Racism in Saratoga Springs
Let’s face reality. Saratoga Springs has never been immune to bigotry, discrimination, racism or anti-Semitism anymore than any other community has.
Some of the more blatant examples made national headlines while others were deemed so common place as to be accepted without objection.
After Henry Hilton took over the management of the Grand Union Hotel he refused Joseph Seligman, who had masterminded the plan to refinance the nation’s Civil War debt, a room because he was a Jew. Hilton’s act to bar Seligman and his family became a national cause celebre, the most public anti-Semitic incident in America up to then.
Said Hilton, “As the law permits a man to use his property as he pleases, I propose exercising this blessed privilege, notwithstanding Moses and all his descendants object.” Headlined the “New York Times”: “A SENSATION AT SARATOGA. NEW RULES FOR THE GRAND UNION. NO JEWS TO BE ADMITTED. MR. SELIGMAN, THE BANKER, AND HIS FAMILY SENT AWAY.” Thus this place became synonymous with American anti-Semitism.
In 1942. Yaddo elected to admit African American artists and writers for the first time. Among them is Langston Hughes. Saratoga Springs, by then a city, still had racially segregated accommodations, including the New Worden hotel whose bar was a favorite Yaddo watering hole.
Hughes – already a published novelist, poet and playwright – had written “Let America Be America Again” four years earlier – so it was more than ironic that Yaddo executive director Elizabeth Ames deemed it necessary to seek assurances that Hughes would be permitted in the Worden bar. Here is the October 16, 1942 response she received from the Worden’s proprietor:
Dear Miss Ames,
Replying to yours of the 15th, I do not object to Langston Hughes, the colored writer coming in our bar as long as he is in the company from someone else from Yaddo.
Edward C. Sweeny
Much more recently, then Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim, whose physician father is a Korean-American, was the target of racial epithets anonymously published online in the “Saratogian” during a re-election campaign.
Ron publicly protested. The then publisher of the “Saratogian” said he was “… distressed that a candidate would not address an issue (privately) before going to the media…” The then editor, in more measured response, wrote that the racial slurs were “… offensive…” and she “…did not want such comments associated with the Saratogian.” Still, they were deemed acceptable for publication. A tepid response to what demanded an aggressive condemnation.
Today, of course, it is illegal to bar a Jew from a Grand Union or an African American from a New Worden bar. But it’s not illegal to be an anonymous racist or political operative who, emboldened by the internet, can hit and run without fear of retribution or sanction.
Then there is a more subtle racism hidden behind allegations of “reverse discrimination.” Case in point.
In 1989, I began a process designed to encourage more minorities and women to compete for appointment to the City’s fire and police services. At that time there were members of the community who believed, incorrectly I thought, that non-white candidates were unlikely to be appointed.
We set out by re-tooling the Civil Service test announcements, distributing them widely throughout the City, and offering pre-test orientation and other enticements. This was done through a committee I appointed made of the City Civil Service executive, the League of Women Voters, representatives of the police and fire services and a representative of the NAACP. The local press was supportive and profiled the initiative.
Some members of the city’s political class suggested it was not a politically savvy move but the leadership of the police department supported the effort and I never heard a word of protest from the ranks.
But in 1997, an action was brought against me alleging reverse discrimination. The action was ultimately dismissed but only after bumbled initial steps by the NYS Division of Human Rights and a protracted fight to defend our position and the right to actively recruit minorities.
These examples underscore past racism and discrimination here in Saratoga Springs that needs to be known and understood. That is not the role of the police but rather the obligation of the entire community including our schools, faith communities and government.
Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister who established the modern London Metropolitan Police, identified nine principles of “ethical” policing, including this:
“To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
Yes, police must be held to a high standard and evidence of racial bias must be disqualifying. But for many years now perspective appointees to the Saratoga Springs Police Department have been subjected to psychological examination, background investigation, interviews and even polygraph testing before appointment.
So we acknowledge that it is our duty to support the police as our representatives in promoting the welfare of the community but it should also be our duty to call out and fight against racism whenever and wherever we see it.
Perhaps we should demand that this year’s crop of city council candidates outline specific actions they would take to seek to address street violence, promote racial peace and justice and bring the best motivated, culturally and racially aware candidates into the police department. So far few have offered more than pious fluff.