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Friday, April 4, 2008

Albany police probe sought

Council members urge state commission to look into department issues
The Albany Times Union by BRENDAN J. LYONS and TIM O'BRIEN, Staff writers - April 4, 2008

ALBANY -- Six members of the city Common Council have asked a state oversight commission to investigate a series of controversies involving allegations of misconduct and cover-ups within the Albany police force. In a letter dated March 17 that was received last week by the state Commission on Investigation (SIC), the council members, including President Shawn Morris, cited a "disturbing trend of improper behavior by some members of the Albany Police Department with inadequate or insufficient responses by police administration."

The letter was not presented to the entire 16-member council for endorsement because of concerns it would become mired in politics and never released, some members who signed it said. The six-member commission, headquartered in New York City, investigates allegations of public corruption, including misconduct within police forces statewide.

"The commission has received the letter and is reviewing it," said Steven A. Greenberg, a spokesman for the SIC. The timing of a decision on whether to take on the case "really depends on the complexity of the investigation, how much cooperation the commission receives or doesn't receive, and where the investigation leads," he added. The letter was signed by Morris and council members Dominick Calsolaro, Corey Ellis, Catherine Fahey, Carolyn McLaughlin and Barbara Smith.

Some of the cases cited by the elected leaders were gleaned from reports in the Times Union over the past eight months. They include the illegal purchase of dozens of machine guns by officers; the handling of an internal affairs investigation into the alleged cavity search of a Ravena woman during a traffic stop; and the discovery that misconduct complaints have been routinely withheld from a Citizens' Police Review Board. Police Chief James W. Tuffey said the department will cooperate with the SIC if it launches an investigation. "I do think there's a tinge of political thing here, but I'm bigger than that obviously," Tuffey said. "I don't think that politics and police mesh."

Tuffey said that he has not evaded the council's inquiries regarding the controversies. Still, some members have questioned the veracity of his statements. For instance, several council members said Tuffey wrongly led them to believe the department had recovered and destroyed all of the machine guns secretly purchased by officers years ago. The city has gone to court to prevent the Times Union from reviewing records related to the gun purchases. The chief said the council misunderstood his statements, and he has since acknowledged several of the guns are missing.

Tuffey said that despite those controversial incidents, he has made great strides in his first two years, including the impending installation of cameras in police cars, declining crime rates, a publicly accessible crime mapping system and a sharp increase in discipline of rogue officers. "These are good things that have made this organization more accountable," Tuffey said. Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti said he respects the council members' decision to seek an outside review. But he cautioned that the council has a responsibility to conduct its own oversight of the department.

Last month, Conti and other council members challenged assertions by Tuffey and Mayor Jerry Jennings that the department may withhold certain internal affairs complaints from the police review board. Tuffey has since proposed a measure to allow the board to contact complainants who may not want review board oversight of their case. Some council members said he doesn't have that authority. "As one of the council members who participated in drafting the 2000 law, I have been clear in my position that this interpretation is contrary to the plain meaning of the law," Conti said. "I urge city officials to comply with the law as enacted."

The Common Council has authority to conduct investigations of Police Department issues, including subpoena power to solicit sworn testimony and obtain internal police documents. But the council has never mustered enough votes to invoke its subpoena powers because of political allegiances to the mayor's administration, several council members said. Jennings did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith, who represents part of Arbor Hill and is vice chair of the council's Public Safety Committee, characterized the request for an outside investigation as a way to obtain answers and not a slap at Tuffey. "Chief Tuffey has made vast improvements to the department," Smith said. "But there's something historically systematic and bigger than any one individual because it's about a kind of system failure as far as what does the department do in response to issues of misconduct." Ellis said there is a perception that the department's internal affairs investigations are not objective.

"There is no other option but for there to be an outside agency looking at the many concerns surrounding our Police Department," he said. "The Police Department should not be investigating itself." Council member Michael O'Brien, a member of the Public Safety Committee, said he declined to sign the letter.

"I think Tuffey inherited a bad situation from (former Chief) John Nielsen," he said. "My bottom line is I was more inclined to give the chief some more time. I think he is a reformer. I think he's got a big can of worms to reform.... I think he is trying to make the Police Department more professional and trying to address the problem children in it." Council member James Sano said he was not asked to sign the letter, even though the council met in caucus Wednesday night. "Right now it seems premature and political," he said. "There are issues there, and I think the chief is addressing them. It's all disturbing stuff that has to be dealt with."

Asking for an outside investigation indicates a lack of confidence in both the city's Citizens' Police Review Board and the council's Public Safety Committee, Sano said. "The Citizens' Police Review Board is supposed to be the body. Have we thrown that to the wind now?" he said. "A couple of months down the road, if it seems like we're getting nowhere and nothing is happening, I could understand."

Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at

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