Albany department creates new unit with community focus

Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, October 22, 2010

ALBANY -- The city police department's bid to remake its image is taking shape in a new unit that police brass says will liberate beat officers to solve neighborhood problems on their own without micromanagement from department bureaucracy.

The Neighborhood Engagement Unit -- the front end of Chief Steven Krokoff's ongoing effort to instill a departmentwide community policing philosophy -- will herald the restoration of permanent beat patrols and, according to police commanders, is based on the concept that residents have valuable insight into how their neighborhoods ought to be policed.

Krokoff, however, is sensitive to comparisons of the new unit to the one it is essentially replacing, a mobile squad of 26 officers created during a controversial 2006 reorganization of the department under former Chief James Tuffey.

Tuffey christened the Strategic Deployment Unit as a data-driven force to saturate so-called crime hot-spots in the image of the policing that helped drive down crime in New York City in the 1990s.

Some neighborhood activists fought the change, fearing that a shift to a more mechanized and impersonal brand of policing might do more damage than good.

"This administration agrees with the neighbors," said Deputy Chief Stephen Reilly.

Still, some welcomed the show of force as violent crime, mirroring broader state and nationwide trends, dropped citywide. Others, however, viewed it as intrusive and damaging to community-police relations.

"A lot of the neighbors thought we were an occupying force as opposed to a partner in reducing crime," Krokoff said.

And even as crime fell, the SDU's efforts did little to improve the public perception that the streets in many city neighborhoods are not safe, Krokoff acknowledged.

Krokoff has entrusted Lt. Michael Tremblay, a 15-year veteran, to lead the new unit and change that image.

Tremblay, who spent the last three years as a patrol lieutenant, will oversee the NEU and set benchmarks for officers that are tied more to the community's perception of the service the department provides than simply reducing crime.

"If all we do is chase around dots on a map, we're not doing the right thing," Assistant Chief Brendan Cox said.

Cox has worked closely with both an internal department committee and an external citizen panel that has helped shape the department's still-evolving community policing vision.

Krokoff said he expects the NEU will be about the same size as the SDU. And police commanders stressed that the

Officers will be expected to participate in neighborhood meetings and other community events and be the primary point of contact for residents with non-emergency problems.

Decentralization has been a theme of Krokoff's tenure as chief since his appointment in August.

As interim chief, his commitment to establishing Albany's first true community policing framework in more than two decades won him wide community support and made his selection by Mayor Jerry Jennings remarkably uncontroversial.

Winning neighborhood support in areas of the city where a distrust of the police department has fermented for years won't come quickly, the department's own internal report acknowledges.

"This process will take an extended period of time and to expect immediate results would be impractical," the report states. "Police services alone will not solve the current myriad of problems that are in these areas."

Krokoff said the department plans to present its tentative plan for the new unit, including the beat patrols, to the internal and external committees by month's end. He said the beats will roughly follow neighborhood association boundaries.

Some neighborhoods, he noted, already have well-liked beat officers, who are also members of the SDU.

Their success, Krokoff has said, has come in spite of the department's lack of clear direction about what it wanted them to accomplish.

One such neighborhood is Park South, where neighbors have largely embraced their beat officer as part of a larger attempt to transform the neighborhood's landscape through redevelopment and, by extension, its gritty image.

"The deployment of the SDU has been a huge success in Park South," said Andrew Harvey, president of the Park South Neighborhood Association. "The incidence of crime has plunged during its existence. Officer Mike Fiorino and the rest of the SDU officers have done a bang-up job and we can only hope that the next phase of community policing will be as successful, and that officer Fiorino will be a part of it."

Councilwoman Barbara Smith, who represents North Albany and Arbor Hill, said she always felt like the SDU was open to hearing neighborhood concerns.

But as a strong supporter of the community policing push, Smith said she hopes the department's new look will prompt residents in all neighborhoods to feel as though they have the same access to the department.

"Community policing does have a certain geographic rootedness," Smith said of the need for a neighborhood focus. "I think that the new direction for the police department is one that has a widespread mandate."

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.