Community involvement key to future crime prevention

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Even though the crime rate in Albany has trended downward in recent years, particularly when compared to a period from 1990 to 1996 when overall and violent crime numbers were through the roof, local officials concede there's no reason to let up in their efforts to combat crime.

Not when 778 violent crimes -- homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- were reported last year.

"One of the things a city absolutely must do is make its citizens feel safe," Albany City Manager Alfred Lott said. "That's what our police department has been charged with doing. And while I feel that Albany is an exceptionally safe place to live and raise a family, I know that every person who is a victim of any crime feels less safe.

"That's expected. But what we have to do is turn that around, create an atmosphere where the community is involved in crime prevention efforts. When we do that, our citizens feel more empowered, feel less like victims."

Despite a comparatively high number of violent crimes in 2009, statistics released by the Albany Police Department show that reported property crimes -- arson, burglary, larceny and auto theft -- were at one of the lowest levels in the past 23 years.

Overall crime in the city -- with 5,579 incidents reported -- was also lower than it has been in all but four of the years in the past two-plus decades. And while such raw numbers are open to various interpretations, there can be no mistaking the significant difference in 2009's numbers when compared to a year like 1992, when violent crimes surpassed 1,200 and total crimes topped 10,000.

Attempts to discuss the crime statistics with APD Chief John Proctor for this report were unsuccessful, but Lott said the city police department had a viable game plan in place to combat crime in the city. He pointed to the recent development of a gang task force, ongoing efforts of the Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit to combat drug-related criminal activity and increased emphasis on developing strong Neighborhood Watch programs as key elements in the battle.

"We're doing everything in our power to establish a crime prevention program that fully involves the community," the city manager said. "The more our citizens are involved, the more they understand the process. They become adept at looking for things in their neighborhoods that don't belong: strange people, strange cars, activities that don't seem quite right.

"We've got some very strong Neighborhood Watch programs, and the people in those neighborhoods feel safer. They feel more in control of what happens to their neighbors' and their own property, and that empowers them. I can't overemphasize how important an element that is to crime prevention."

Lott also praised elected city officials for their active roles in the fight against crime.

"One of the things that happens in Albany is that city commissioners actively get involved in crime prevention in their districts," he said. "When their constituents report criminal or suspicious activity to the commissioners, they make a point of passing it along to police officials. It happens quite a lot."

Organizations in the city outside the law enforcement community are also taking steps to fight the root causes of crime. The Albany Area Chamber of Commerce is developing an anti-poverty initiative that has generated tremendous initial response.

Chamber President/CEO Catherine Glover said more than 200 volunteers from dozens of local agencies had gotten on board for the Chamber's Strive to Thrive initiative, whose purpose is to help families living in poverty seek self-sufficiency.

"There is a direct correlation with a community's crime rate and its poverty rate," Glover said. "Our Strive to Thrive program is based on a national model designed to help individuals help themselves out of poverty. The crux of the program is working with social capital.

"Businesses that are part of the Chamber access social capital through networking. Individuals living in poverty lack that social capital quality among their peers, so we're using this program to target families in poverty who've shown a penchant to succeed, who are motivated to become self-sufficient. We want to bring them to a level where there is social connectivity."

Despite the efforts of law enforcement and civic groups, there is a contingent of the local population that does not believe enough is being done to combat crime at its chief sources: among the known gangs and drug dealers in the community.

One such representative, a longtime resident who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal, said Albany's crime rate is a product of law enforcement and a judicial contingent that do little to combat and deter crime.

"The cops around here know who the criminals are, who the drug dealers and the gang members are," he said. "They're either scared of them or they're in with them, because you never hear of them doing anything to put these criminals away. They talk about Neighborhood Watch programs and things like that, but when people call in crimes the police either come too late to do anything about them or they don't come at all.

"There used to be a time when law enforcement was an honorable profession done by people who truly wanted to make their community safe. And the judges did everything in their power to put the criminals away. Now, you've got people riding around in their (police) cars making an easy paycheck. They don't care about the decent people in the community."

Lott said he's heard citizen complaints about nonresponsiveness of city police personnel, but he questions the validity of such complaints.

"Quite frankly, I've found very little evidence to support such claims," he said. "Our 9-1-1 system is set up so that calls are handled in order of priority, so there may be a longer time for response to something like a noise complaint.

"I don't buy into that talk about police not showing up for emergency calls."

Businessman Kirk Smith, who has announced plans to run for mayor, is an outspoken critic of local law enforcement policy and procedure. He said a level of corruption has tainted the police department, and he is promoting steps that are, he says, "good for all the citizens of Albany, no matter where they live."

"The first thing we've got to do is get a police chief in that office who does not play politics," Smith said. "We need to get someone in place who's willing to get out there on the streets and fight crime, and who's willing to talk to the people of the community. (APD Assistant Chief) Wilma Griffin is the only top-level official with the police department who has shown any real leadership in the last several years.

"We have to weed out the weaknesses in the department, increase the morale of officers who look at their job like any other 9-to-5 position. I think maybe the first thing that needs to be done is to create an internal affairs division that is willing to investigate charges against anyone, no matter what level they're at. Until we address these leadership issues, crime will continue to run rampant in our city."