Albany NY July 16 2017 Police officers at the University at Albany say they are being discouraged from making arrests or writing tickets and have had limits placed on the number of miles they can drive their patrol cars during a shift.
The strict policies, which are resulting in fewer arrests, require the officers to spend more time on foot in campus buildings and less time patrolling roads in and around the uptown and downtown campuses. The directives, many of them issued in the last year, also prohibit officers from stopping motorists for violations such as holding a cellphone or driving the wrong way on a one-way street, according to officers and officials with the union that represents them.
In addition, the officers must obtain authorization from an investigator or supervisor before applying for a search warrant or when making an arrest, with the supervisors given the authority to "un-arrest" a suspect or to reject a request for a warrant, even when it may yield evidence of a crime.
J. Frank Wiley, who has been chief of the campus police force since 1996, said the department "has always functioned within the community policing philosophy. ... This is not a change in approach."
He cited recommendations issued two years ago by President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing that "law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy."
"Good policing is more than just complying with the law," Wiley said in a written response to questions from the Times Union. "Sometimes actions are permitted by policy, but that does not always mean an officer should take those actions."
The policies have created tensions on the small force and raised questions internally about whether the restrictions represent an effort to keep down the school's arrest numbers, which are publicly posted under federal regulations. In addition, the department has faced scrutiny from the state Inspector General's office, which last year investigated the handling of the death of an 18-year-old Elizabethtown College student whose body was found in the back seat of a car on the main campus in 2013.
According to a state official briefed on the matter, the inspector general's investigation included seizing computer records from the UAlbany police force amid a probe that examined whether investigators ignored information that the victim may have died after being placed in the trunk of the vehicle when a group of students drove home from Saratoga County following a night of partying. The student's cause of death was officially listed as pulmonary edema, a condition where fluid builds up in the lungs.
The state official said inspector general investigators interviewed several current and former members of the UAlbany police force as part of the probe.
"The officers on the scene had a suspicion he had been in the trunk during the ride because there were so many of them in the car," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of a state policy that prevents public comment on the matter. "There was a theory the kids took him out of the trunk and put him in the back seat and waited to call police."
The unrest at the department comes as the union for the officers filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Board last month contending the patrol-mileage restrictions were instituted after the union filed a grievance over the poor condition of the department's patrol vehicles, including bald tires, vehicles that would stall regularly and dashboard warning lights that would stay on permanently due to poor maintenance.
The mileage restrictions initially required officers to drive less than 15 miles per shift if they were patrolling the uptown campus and no more than 20 miles if patrolling downtown areas near UAlbany buildings. The officers said the 15-mile limit equated to roughly four laps around the main campus road. Recently, the department increased the cap to 25 miles per shift on the uptown campus and 30 miles downtown because officers were routinely going over the limit.
Wiley defended the practice, which is unusual for an urban-area police force.
"Mileage restrictions are intended to increase positive citizen-police contact and to reduce the fear of crime through increased foot patrol and increased visibility in heavily traveled pedestrian areas," the chief said. "The mileage restriction has a probable secondary benefit reducing the wear and tear on the vehicle fleet."
An officer who spoke to the Times Union on condition of anonymity said that after the mileage policy took effect in February, a deputy chief listened to radio calls from his residence and would instruct officers to "stop making traffic stops" and get into campus buildings. The officer said the fallout has been fewer DWI arrests and situations where officers feel unable to stop vehicles for infractions that might endanger pedestrians.
"One officer was even told that a vehicle that he had stopped which was driving on a metal rim and shooting sparks from under the vehicle was not enough of a exigent circumstance and that he should not have stopped the vehicle," the person said.
Some officers called the policy changes inconsistent given the department's embrace of an aggressive "no tolerance" approach five years ago after an off-campus melee where thousands of students jammed a Pine Hill neighborhood for an annual alcohol-fueled event known as "kegs and eggs" that spiraled out of control. The unsanctioned event led to a show of force by Albany police to break it up and left a neighborhood scarred with 16 tons of debris and soaked in alcohol.
After that, "Even the lowest level of marijuana possession was a mandatory arrest," said Daniel De Federicis, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, the union representing 36 members of the university force. Now, "It's a demoralized police force because of the flawed leadership, sometimes absent leadership. It's harming the overall safety of the campus."
Last year, about a week after a patrol officer recovered an illegal firearm during a vehicle stop on Washington Avenue, the department issued an order prohibiting vehicle stops on roads abutting and adjoining campus absent an immediate threat to the public.
"There is no connection between these two issues," Wiley said. "The vehicle stop was performed following an areawide notification to law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for the vehicle that was stopped. As such, the stop would have been appropriate before or after the guidance was issued."
The chief said the directive limiting the patrol jurisdiction of the university police aligns with agreements the school has with local police departments, including the city of Albany. Still, officers interviewed during the past year said they have been discouraged from pursuing criminal investigations, especially involving off-campus larcenies or drug dealing even when students were implicated. By turning those cases over to Albany police, they said, the university avoids reporting the crimes as campus-related.
Last week, the PBA issued a "no confidence" vote targeting Wiley and UAlbany Deputy Chief Aran C. Mull. The unanimous vote was cast during a PBA board of directors meeting in Albany.
"In recent years, when criminal arrest statistics appeared to spike, thereby alarming university administrators, management placed severe restrictions on patrol and arrest functions, including counseling and reprimanding officers for making certain arrests," the PBA said in a statement.
Some of the officers said the department is transforming their role into being "high-paid building security guards" rather than police.
In May, supervisors were told that officers are no longer allowed to conduct stationary traffic details, such as speed traps, unless directed to do so by a lieutenant. When officers are allowed to conduct stationary traffic details, they are not allowed to stop vehicles for infractions such as cellphone violations or failure to stop unless authorized to do so by a supervisor, according to union officials.
"Traffic enforcement using a stationary patrol vehicle does not enhance visibility," Wiley said. "It is therefore not encouraged."