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Monday, September 8, 2008

Indictment targets police corruption

Indictment targets police corruption
The Albany Times Union, by Rex Smith, editor - September 6, 2008

The trial was at a crucial point with the prosecution's best witness. A detective who had interrogated the suspect was on the stand. Why, the prosecutor asked, did the suspect confess? The cop shrugged. "I think he wanted to get it off his chest," he said. For years after that, a hulking detective, a partner of the cop on the witness stand, became known as "Detective It." What the suspect really had wanted to get off his chest, another cop confided, was that "Detective It" had a habit of kneeling on bad guys until they confessed. That was long ago, when I was a young reporter. Whether the story was one of those legends that grow up around cops remains a mystery, because that police department, like many, didn't tape what went on in interrogation rooms.

Memories of "Detective It" came to me Friday when Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced the indictment of three Schenectady police officers in connection with an arrest Dec. 7 of Donald Randolph on a drunk driving charge. Randolph has claimed Officers Eric Reyell, Gregory Hafensteiner and Andrew Karaskiewicz beat him up in the McDonald's parking lot on Union Street, then again on the way to police headquarters for booking. Note that the cops weren't charged with attacking Randolph. Instead, Cuomo brought misdemeanor "official misconduct" charges against them for this: Reyell allegedly didn't turn on the camera in his squad car at the arrest scene or during the drive to headquarters, and none of the three filed "Use of Force" forms that the department now requires. You may quickly jump to the conclusion that cops who beat up a guy are getting away with a slap on the wrist. Or maybe you figure this is an unfair intrusion by lawyers who don't understand the street, where dedicated officers routinely confront jerks who can turn a quiet night into a nightmare. Reyell, Hafensteiner and Karaskiewicz have pleaded not guilty.

In fact, we don't know what happened at the McDonald's parking lot, any more than I know whether "Detective It" squashed confessions out of people. But make no mistake: Cuomo's case is a direct assault on a police union-dominated environment that has tolerated unprofessional behavior and, sometimes, outright criminality by people with badges. Wayne Bennett, a former superintendent of State Police, became Schenectady's public safety commissioner 16 months ago with a mandate from Mayor Brian U. Stratton to clean up an agency long unable to escape the taint of corruption. He has a tough job. Eleven Schenectady officers have been arrested in less than a decade; six have gone to prison. Cops have been convicted of tipping off suspects in a gambling investigation, stealing drugs from evidence lockers and warning drug dealers they were being watched. Ex-Chief Gregory Kaczmarek's name is all over wiretap tapes from Cuomo's probe of a narcotics ring; he's not charged, but his wife faces up to 25 years in prison if she is convicted. And who can forget the Schenectady cops who got roaring drunk at a bachelor party more than a decade ago and threw eggs at passing cars? What fun guys! Bennett has instituted reforms to attack this sort of misconduct. Friday's indictment, far from overlooking the bad behavior, underscores the state's support for Bennett's crackdown.

One guard against what cops call "bad arrests" is the installation of cameras in squad cars. If the camera is turned on, it will produce evidence that can either convict a brutal cop or clear an unfairly charged officer of baseless allegations. And those forms officers are required to fill out after using force are similarly crucial. Officers lie on those forms at risk of being charged with perjury. But when officers don't turn on the cameras, or "forget" to file the forms, they enshroud their arrests in secrecy. Corruption thrives in such darkness. That's why the indictment Cuomo announced goes to the heart of the problem in Schenectady. Cuomo doesn't have the evidence to either charge or clear the officers of the brutality allegation — because the officers involved apparently blew off their commissioner's rules. Maybe we misunderstand. Perhaps the indictment is misdirected and the officers will be cleared. Maybe. And maybe some Schenectady cops will decide to get it all off their chest and join their commissioner's fight to clean up their act.  Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union.

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