Albany Police Chief James Tuffey

Interview By RAY FELICIANO

Q: Now that you’ve been here a full year, what would you say has been your biggest challenge?

“I think coming in and taking an overall look at the department to see where it needs to go, and I think it was a big challenge last year and the reorganization was accomplished with a lot of input from all levels. I think at the end, after being the biggest challenge, it was also the biggest asset – moving the Albany Police Department into 2006-2007 and beyond.”

Q: You are also the former Director of New York State’s Emergency Management Office…

Albany Police Chief James Tuffey

Albany Police Chief James Tuffey describes the need for citizens and police working together to solve community problems with TIC Sr. Editor, Ray Feliciano.
(photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

“Right. I was the Director from July 2003 or 2004. Before that I was an Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) where I ran the law enforcement for six years, both the Forest Rangers and the ENCON Police. I also ran the Emergency Management for the agency and actually put an incident command system in a 4,000-person agency. That command system is how you operate during an emergency—now mandated by presidential directives five and eight under the national response plan. I was the person at ENCON who was in charge of the 9/11 response for DEC so I spent a lot of time in New York City working on that, especially with the landfill issues, and the issues around Ground Zero.”

Q: Regarding federal funds for homeland security, what happened to those funds for Albany?

“Yeah, the funds were cut, and that’s one of the problems that everyone’s looking at now – how these decisions are being made. It appears that we’ve gotta come up with a system funded on the threat levels. Obviously, Albany being the Capital of New York State, and what’s beyond is that New York is known as one of the primary targets for those individuals who want to do harm to our country. They are going to attack again, and we’ve gotta figure out a way, and unfortunately it gets mired in politics sometimes as opposed to the good of the people. You have to do that, and that’s something that I really think needs to be looked at again in Washington. How do you say to the City of Albany we’re gonna have you asking for funding for at least three years. You start putting a plan together and then you cut the funding the second year so that those plans can’t be fully implemented, and I think that’s disingenuous not to follow up and give us that – and not be able to give us answers.”

Q: Have all the first responders (police, fire, ambulance, hospitals) practiced together for emergencies?

“We had an exercise very recently in April 2006 with the New York State Emergency Management Office, Homeland Security, the Albany police, fire, hospitals, and we did good. As a matter of fact, tomorrow, the Homeland Security is coming in here from the State and we’re going to talk about, we’ll actually have to report about the reality of what went right and what went wrong. Anytime we have an event in Albany, whether it was the cooling shelters [for people when the weather is dangerously hot] this summer—we use that as an exercise, an exercise to see what we do right and what we do wrong. That’s what you do, and that’s called ‘everyday practice’. The key here is to set a platform, and when you have an incident you just bump it up to another level. Well-trained first responders are able to respond to bigger things just by stepping it up a notch. That’s what usually happens.”

Q: Has closing the two police stations had the desired effect of getting more police on the streets, reducing bureaucracy, and improving community policing?

“I believe so. I believe, as I said from day one, once it’s done we’re not going to take two months and say, ‘Ahh, it’s been a success.’ But I can tell you just the citizens that I see, and of course, I’m in the community all the time, like at night meetings, and the positive feedback from the community on the different number of officers they’re seeing, and the more high visibility that they’re seeing, gives me a comfort level that’s it’s really starting to take hold in the City of Albany.”

Q: Are they patrolling in cars or walking the streets?

“Cars? No, beats. There’s three or four officers walking together on Lark Street, where there used to be only one officer there. And again, we move them around, so what we’re always doing is anticipating things, prevention. We’re not letting people know this is when we’re gonna be there... So, it is having the desired effect. I think that the feedback from the membership of the department, saying, ‘Wow, where did we get all these cops?’ sometimes, really is a positive—that the members see it working also. Nobody likes change, but I think we did it right. We went to the public, we went to the membership, we brought the unions in early, we talked to the Common Council. So, I think people might say that it wasn’t done exactly right or something, but I think they will say it was an open and honest dialog. And at the end of the day, all I really ask people is not for more resources, but let me manage the resources of the police department, and if it doesn’t work, hold me accountable. And I still say that.”

Q: How are you changing the police culture?

“The officers that just got out of police school, I kept them here for three extra weeks. I’m meeting with various members of the community in a conglomerate that’s part of a training tool, so officers understand people before they go out on the street.”

Q: They’re learning how to build rapport?

“Right. With actual citizens, sitting in a room and having dialog with them so their first encounter is not when they hit the streets because in school you don’t really have that dialog. We sent officers to college for Spanish this year for the first time. We gave the exam in Spanish. So, we’re starting to change the culture of the police department and understand the various nationalities that make up our great city.”

Q: Have the metal detectors that have been installed in Albany High School been effective in deterring the violence there? Are metal detectors are a trend that more schools should be following?

“I think it’s part of the positive impact it’s had on the schools, but I think more importantly is the new Head of Security and the dialog that we’re having with them on an everyday basis. It’s really helped, and it’s really a cooperative effort. I give a lot of credit to the Mayor [Gerald Jennings] and the Superintendent of the schools [Dr. Eva Joseph] for allowing that to happen at our levels.”

Q: What else can be done to decrease the violence in the schools that’s being reported?

“Again, I think it’s the education of the children. Better educated children, less problems. I mean, this is not something that’s being talked about everyday throughout the country. The mayor and I went to this ‘Mayors Against Gun Violence’ the other day in Washington. From Los Angeles to Baltimore to Milwaukee to Boston to New York City to Buffalo New York, the same theme was educational—we’ve got to get our kids educated, especially in the urban areas because kids learn differently in urban areas. I say learn differently, but they sometimes don’t come from great homes—they come from broken homes—and we need to treat those children in a different way, bring them into a positive aspect and give them role models and education so they can get out of that cycle that sometimes they think is there forever when they’re growing up as kids. We gotta change that.”

Q: Speaking of role models, why is the Police Athletic League focused on grades 5th through 8th? Why not extend it through high school?

“Well, that’s been traditional. We’re starting to look at different things. I’m looking at a youth committee that’s gonna meet with me on a monthly basis, meet with officers. We’re starting to think a little differently on that, but you gotta get kids early. If you don’t get ‘em early, sometimes they’re set in their ways. You gotta go down to the earliest grades really to get kids engaged, and I think that’s why it was really focused on that. As you get into high school [years] you’re supposed to be giving children as they grow into mature young adults more freedom to develop into their own type of person. I think that’s something that we’ve gotta do a little better. And as I say to people, twenty-five years ago, if the Chief of Police was talking about social issues they’d have me out the door. But we want to be part of the solution. We don’t have the solution, but we can be part of the solution. We’ve been bringing various organizations in to meet and talk about what resources are out there, so that we can help direct kids and families into intervention before we have to get involved with a police type encounter when an arrest is made... So there’s some things. I think everybody’s got a lot of things, but the key here is we gotta bring everybody together and figure out what really works and what doesn’t.”

Q: Officer Bonanni has recently been back in the news, this time for violating your new policy prohibiting alcohol consumption within eight hours of beginning of shift. Compounding the issue was that his supervisor, Sgt. Pickel, failed to report the violation once aware of it in a timely manner. Do you believe such situations like this damage all police officers by lending to a perception that police will cover up for each other?

“First of all, I’m not at liberty to talk about a case like this, but I will tell you that I think people know that there’s a reason why I put that policy in. We will deal appropriately through our process to make sure those types of incidents, if they happen, and confirmed to happen, that they’re dealt with in an appropriate manner. It does put a black cloud over the department. Unfortunately, the 99% of people who go out and do their job, sometimes they’re frustrated with it also. I’m the type of person, leader that doesn’t punish everybody for the actions of the few. I take care of the incident at hand, whatever it may be, and I praise the other officers for the job they do every day, and sometimes you have to give them that extra word of encouragement because they do get frustrated with things like that. One of the things I said when I came here is it’s gonna be an open and honest police department, and I live by that and will continue to live by that because the public does pay us, and we’re out there to protect the public.”

Q: Police officers are sometimes seen using their cell phones while driving. How is this justified?

“There’s a provision of the law that allows that. We do use them for police purposes at some times, but we also don’t want officers using the cell phone to talk to, ya know, but if they’re using for police purposes then we pretty much let that, but I’m starting to look at that also because that’s something I see also...They’re doing police work versus somebody talkin’ for a social issue. There is a difference on that. Don’t take it wrong. If somebody’s listening on the radio, or we’re following a bad guy, and somebody calls on the cell phone to say the car is here or there, or if they’re watching a drug dealer or whatever, it’s not on the air so if somebody’s got a scanner they can’t hear it. Again, I’m not trying to skirt the issue, but I wanna tell ya that it’s used, and some of them are departmental phones which we are using for those types of purposes.”

Q: In Schenectady, there was a recent story about police raiding a house where they traumatized a mother, handcuffed an 11 and 12-year old, sprayed them with pepper spray, and killed their dog—all over $60 dollars worth of marijuana. Doesn’t using this kind of force endanger lives and inflict more damage than the offense justifies?

“First of all, when we go in we have different type of reporting, whether to use pepper gas or use a Taser or shoot a dog, whatever. And again, we base it on each individual case. So, there are policies in place that officers need to abide by, and I’m not going to go up there because I don’t know the case. I read what you did, but we also take a look at each and every case. That’s why you try to get the best intelligence. Is there a pit bull in the house? How can you isolate that pit bull? Number two, we do take people under warrant, and we do separate them and isolate them so there’s not an opportunity to, as for drugs, get rid of those drugs.”

Q: This is certainly not the level of a Tony Montana [Scarface], though. There is a difference, isn’t there?

“Again, I wasn’t there, and I’m not going to back and second guess them, but I can tell you that we look at each and every case, and I had cases in Albany where people from the family have called me, and when I explained certain things to them, they went, ‘Well, we never thought of it that way.’ Ya know, it’s the safety of the officers, too.”

Q: I was thinking the safety of the officers in that case. When you bust into someone’s house, just instinctively they might [react to defend themselves].

“Right. Listen. If I were sittin’ in my house and somebody kicks my door in, ya know; and again, the key here is, if you’re not dealin’ drugs, you’re not dealin’ guns, and you don’t possess weapons, and you’re not doing anything illegally, you don’t have to worry about them coming in with a search warrant. A search warrant is not drawn up by a police officer and signed by a police officer. It’s drawn up by a police officer, we swear in front of the judge, the judge rules on it and makes a decision whether we have enough to get a search warrant—and whether we have a no-knock search warrant versus a knock search warrant, ya know. So, we have that. That’s the balance that we’ve put in our system. So, if you’re not doing anything illegally, you don’t have to worry about the cops kicking in your door.”

Q: What can we do to reduce the ‘us versus them’ perception that some people have towards the police, and instead foster confidence in your motto of ‘Service, Integrity, and Respect’ (SIR) ?

“Well, I think exactly what I said to you by keepin’ the officers in for that three extra weeks to ‘Albanyize’ them and talk to them about how you deal with people. You don’t just throw an officer on the streets and go, ‘Okay. Now go patrol.’ We’ve gotten very good feedback from the people who participated in that, and they came from different segments of the community. The other thing we’re doing is you’re not just seeing the community service officers at community meetings. Now you’re starting to see those officers who work there every day, and the supervisors, and new commanders so they get to be known to the citizens also. Getting together, understanding each other—who you are, first of all, and then working together to solve the problem. First let’s identify the problems in the community, let’s come up with solutions together, and let’s implement those solutions together. That is some of the culture change that I said. There was a neighborhood meeting the other night, and a guy said, ‘Gee, this cop was there, he had never been there before’ but he was a neighborhood officer from the beat, which was good. When I get that back, and I’m starting to see that, I think it’s a positive.”

Q: Regarding training, some police departments are training on how specifically to deal with the mentally ill.

“We’ve been in that since, uh, in 1984 we had the unfortunate death of Jesse Davis. So, we’ve been working with the community very well, and in fact, that’s some of the things we talk about when we bring these groups together. How do we get that kid into that service? Maybe we’re providing that service, but we get the call when there’s a mother- daughter, and I use this hypothetically, having a verbal domestic at 7:00—and maybe their having a domestic intervention going on, but do you think they’re telling us, the cop, that there’s intervention going on? We need to get that information to the right people who are already giving them services possibly so they can look at it the next day or that night if it’s the appropriate time, to be able to really go in and figure out what the problem is, because you know what happens? At 10:00 we get that it’s not a verbal domestic, now it’s a physical domestic. Now we’re into an arrest situation. So, how can we have some confidence that somebody’s doing something other than what we did tonight.”

Q: Does it only become an arrest situation if it’s physical?

“No, it could be verbal, but what I’m trying to say is how do we identify problems when they’re smaller, before they get bigger, because now it’s into an arrest situation. It could be an arrest down there, but normally it’s that verbal confrontation. Let’s be honest. Maybe the mother can’t read, and the push back is ‘coz she can’t read to help her kid read. You don’t know that. Sometimes we don’t’ know that. We don’t ask those type of questions. If there’s some service already being provided, we get that call, and we leave an hour later from that call, that information goes nowhere. How do we get that information to the appropriate agencies that may be servicing them?”

Q: So it’s not automatic if a neighbor calls up and turns in someone next door for arguing, that someone will be arrested, no matter what?

“No. It could be just an advise. There could be a social service agency working with that family. We don’t know at that point, nor do we want to know exactly what they’re doing, but we want to know if there is a service being provided.”

Q: Are you referring to Child Protective Services?

“All different types. Psychological. We call the psych center to get the team over there. But there’s all types of other services being provided to people in the community that we don’t know about. What we’re trying to do is bring them together to say, ‘What’s out there? Let’s come up with a formal relationship because if we can help prevent some of it here by getting the information to you guys to do a better intervention, well you should know we were there twice last night.’ There’s a lot of issues out there, societal issues. Don’t take it wrong, for many years it’s been on the police department. We gotta share that responsibility, but we want a seat at the table to help solve those problems. We have people who work on nothing but sexual cases, and we have nothing but domestic violence investigators, so we were one of the first, if not the first department in New York State many years ago to go pro-arrest on domestic violence. We were the leaders in state.”

Q: How are the police graded? Is it a department graded based on the number of arrests?

“No, we look at a number of things. I mean, I think we’d all hope that we didn’t have any crime, and that we’re able to serve the public and interact with the public in nothing but a positive manner, but unfortunately society, and historically it’s a society where there’s violence between police and citizens, because there’s violence between the community. That’s the big challenge right now for us, the violence in the community.”

Q: For example, for speeding tickets…

“We don’t have a quota system. We will never have a quota system in this city...we don’t go out and say, ‘You gotta write three speedin’ tickets this month. I would never do that. That’s not my type of policing. We’re doing an initiative right now that we’re out there targeting people who leave their cars running. Whether it’s in front of store ‘X’ or their house because guess what’s happening? That car’s stolen, then the police see it, and then they take off on the police, and what does it end up in? A police chase. If those people had taken their keys out of their car and had taken a precaution to make sure that it was safe, then we wouldn’t have that stolen car, we might not have that police chase, and we not have a reaction from the community. People who get tickets are gonna be mad at us, but what we’re trying to do is an educational enforcement.”

Q: We’ve heard a number of stories from families who believe their children are being taken away by Child Protective Services (CPS) without justifiable cause...

“Let me say this to ya. When I got a kid out in the street at 2:00am and he’s eight years old and the mother gets mad because we report him, what’s wrong with that? Why is that kid out there at eight years old? Don’t take it wrong. That kid who fell out of the window, where was the mother? Then I’m a bad guy because somebody’s gotta stand up and protect the child? I’m sorry, but that’s the type of stuff that we see that most people don’t see. Unfortunately, we see the seedy side of it sometimes that people don’t want to hear about, but it’s time to put some accountability back in. And let me ask you somethin’. If mom or dad is doing crack, and get arrested, and we release them and send them back to their families, do you really think they’re gonna go home and take care of their kids? Let’s be honest. So, you know, we as human beings are naturally defensive about our families. But sometimes you’ve done wrong and what’s the best defense? An offense, so they go on the offensive and say, ‘They took my kids away’ or somethin’ like that. There’s gotta be a valid reason for doing it. We don’t just pick kids off the street and call CPS and say, ‘Take those kids.’ There’s criteria and things like that. Let’s take a look at some of the problems we have in society. Like I said a little while ago, the societal problems are here. We’ve gotta figure out how to take care of those societal problems. It’s a lot bigger than a police department, but unfortunately, again, we’re the end of the train. We’re the last car there to answer the calls. How do we figure out how to change that? Huge issues. Huge issues.”

Q: Does CPS have a law enforcement role?

“No. They have no police powers. They have power under the law, passed by our legislature. We elect the legislature.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

“No. I appreciate the opportunity. I hope that the citizens of this city have seen a change in this police department, that we’ve been very open and honest, and we will continue to be that way. I think that the press will tell you that there’s not much we won’t talk about. I always want people to know that if we’re having a crime problem in a certain area, I want them to know because they’re going to be part of the solution. I think that is my style of government. We’re a partnership. I happen to be the person in charge of the department, but I have what I consider a well-educated, proactive agency. These guys do a great job every day, and go out and put their life on the line every day. The key here is to understand that it’s a partnership between the citizens and the police department. That’s the key every day that I’d like people to understand.”