An update with Albany County District Attorney - David Soares

Interview By RAY FELICIANO (Printed in the December 2006 issue of TIC)

Q: In the case with State Comptroller Al Hevesi, where he's being accused of having misused state funds for private use, if it had been corporate America, this would normally be charged as embezzlement or fraud. Is it handled differently because it’s state money that is at issue?

“As far as how we title the charge, that depends entirely upon what state were talking about. Usually, an allegation will come into the office in the form of an allegation and then its up to the prosecutors to determine what charge the facts that have been alleged fit into. Therefore, what we title a case when we present it to a grand jury, is entirely based upon the facts that are presented to us.”

Albany County DA, David Soares meets with Ray Feliciano of TIC

Albany County DA, David Soares, discusses Albany law enforcement with TIC Sr. Editor, Ray Feliciano.
(photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: Is there a specific crime when a public official is accused of these kind of things?

“There are certain crimes that fit the category specifically for public officials and specifically for public misconduct. However, just because they are public officials does not mean that we’re barred from charging them with the traditional offenses. So long as the facts fit the crime, they will be charged but there are specific charges in the penal laws that address officials and elected officials.”

Q: Regarding the Christopher Porco case, you were quoted in the Times Union saying, “We have a community here that is excited and interested in putting this case behind us. This adjournment delays the gratification that is a long time in coming.” What struck me about that is it sounds a little bit like retributive justice as opposed to restorative justice, which I know you’ve advocated, and I’m wondering, what is the balance between those two?

“Certainly those statements could be interpreted that way, but I think that what I was speaking to was that I don't remember the last time the community was so effected by a crime. Everyone was on edge, and they were on edge for quite a period of time. It took us a while before we could present this case to a grand jury and it took even longer before a jury made a decision, so the people in this county were denied that opportunity to feel safe. What I meant by my statement was that the people of Albany county would be denied the opportunity for that closure for several more months, but it's closure that we need in order to move on and think about the other issues we have in our county.”

Q: In regards to the restorative justice aspect that I know you’ve been championing, how has that been going so far in the past two years that you’ve been DA?

“It's going great. We’ve expanded our Community Accountability Boards to other parts of our county With a program like the Community Accountability Boards and mediation, you need people, citizens that want to participate and have a voice in the criminal justice system. It doesn't work without people, so there's always a need, and a need for diversity as well in these boards. You want people who comprise them to reflect the community that we are hearing these cases in. You want people to understand what the offenders are going through from that community in order to have what I would call a fruitful exchange.”

Q: As far as the disparity in crime between Colonie and downtown Albany, I understand that a recent report has shown that it’s quite far. Colonie is one of the safest areas, yet Albany is not. How would you account for that?

“Well I’ve been saying from the very beginning that there certainly needs to be a change in priority for those of us in law enforcement. I think that some of the statements that I made in Vancouver address what we are seeing here, and what I mean by here being the front lines, certainly the city of Albany accounts for a vast majority of the resources that we’ve been spending here. I don't think that enforcement is enough. I think that we need to engage and make wise investments and prevention. The average age of an offender in the city of Albany is late teens; and think about the opportunity that we have here if we were to properly invest in prevention, especially at the middle school kids; and we say okay, we’re going to commit to this course for the next five years. Imagine the outcome then. We can start to change the city of Albany from being one of the most dangerous cities in the United States to making it one of the best cities in the United States.”

“However, that is not going to come from more money poured into law enforcement, its going to come when we start to consider prevention a wise investment and start to look at what we can do, what we can put in the hands of these 12 and 13 year-olds to keep them occupied so that they are not reaching for a gun at the age of 14 or the age of 15; that they’re not going to corners and looking to engage in that economy. That is something that we really seriously start to consider now.”

Q: Please explain the Counsel for Unity program you’ve advocated initiating at Albany High School.

“Counsel for Unity takes into consideration as a factor the community and where the individual kid is coming from. We have a very unique situation in Albany. Traditionally we’ve had gang problems here. We’ve only recently started to accept that and acknowledge the fact that we have those problems. And they may not be the same gang problems that you have, for example, in North or South Carolina with MS13; we don't have all of the players or colors and the beads and everything else, but what we have is our own home grown culture. We call it North Albany, Uptown and Downtown. We’ve been doing it for years. You have Middle Schools such as Hackett and Livingston located in different parts of Albany, and they all come to Albany High School. So if you’ve got problems on the street between kids from different neighborhoods, how can you not expect to have those problem in the hallways when the same kids are coming across one another? I know that we’ve talked about changing the way that we teach, and we’ve talked about security, but the problem that I see is that were not talking about the kids.”

“How can we take what is incredible leadership some of these young men and women demonstrate on the street; I mean, you have to admit, if you’re a gang leader and you can get people to engage in conduct that puts their own physical health and well being in peril, you probably have some good leadership skills. It's about transitioning those negative skills into something positive. Counsel for Unity focuses on those attributes that kids have and it teaches them how to use that energy and the skills they are born with and how to compliment some of the other skills that are so necessary for them to succeed in life. It's not just focusing on the “gang kids”, but what they do is pair those kids with the other kids that come from Pine Hills or the more affluent areas in the city, and have them work together to empower themselves and then empower their community. That's not something we’ve touched on before, but that’s what the promise of Counsel for Unity really is.”

Q: Police Chief Tuffey claims that by closing two police stations in downtown Albany, he’d be able to put more police on the street. I know we’ve discussed that having police being able to interact with people on the street builds rapport and helps to alleviate problems before they fester. From your stand point does this seem like a good move?

“I'm a big proponent of community policing. To me, there is no greater strategy in the history of law enforcement, regardless of population size, regardless of city. We can call it ‘community policing’, we can call it whatever it is we’re going to label it. It’s officer O’Malley walking the beat, who knows Mrs. Johnson, who lives on this street, who knows little Jimmy, who knows Isaiah. Law enforcement requires great relationships with community. It also requires presence.”

“Now, can Chief Tuffey accomplish the goals of having strong presence in the community that is building relationships with residence while at the same time closing down the stations? That remains to be seen. I don’t know if you can accomplish those two goals at the same time. Certainly the chief has done an incredible amount of work to refocus the department, in a very short period of time that he has been there. When I think about the chief, I think about the incredible task that he has laying on his plate. I came into an organization with less than 60 people and we’re still changing the culture of this organization that has been in place for over 25 years. He has an organization with 360 people and he’s trying to change the culture there. Certainly he’s got a much more difficult road then I would say I do. We don’t always agree on everything, but I am here to support the chief, and I believe that he’s here to support me. We’re partners, and whatever happens personally, professionally our fate and the work that we do are inextricably intertwined. I would be in support of him closing down the stations if the objective of improving community police and strategies if it was shown to me that it could work contemporaneously. I have my doubts about that, but certainly I’m here to support the Albany Police Department.”

Q: Bill A.9812 would make the courts and other public hearings open to being filmed or recorded, where as now some recordings are not allowed. Are you in favor of the public having easy access to public information?

“I certainly think that there is no harm with the public having more information about what their government is doing. One of the first things I did coming into office was to hire a Director of Communications because I felt that it was important that the public understand the role of the District Attorney’s office and the work that we do. And it’s not always favorable information that reaching the public’s ear. If a case is dismissed because of our lack of attention to a detail that’s awfully embarrassing. I think for us, knowing that there are people watching makes us pay more attention to the details of our case. It also provides us with the opportunity to educate the public on legal proceedings that often time there's much more misinformation because of the television broadcasting the various shows that are on. I’m always amazed that at 9:05 you have a death on Law and Order and at 9:55 the defendant is taking the stand and confessing. That's the general perception that people have on the criminal justice system.”

“Am I in favor of it? So long as the video camera is not interfering in the process, I don’t have a problem with it. Yet I do think that our constituents and the public need to understand more about what their government is doing.”