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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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April 14, 2015

Chief Krokoff’s Retirement And The Ivy Incident

A look at tasers and how the City of Albany is handling a
potentially explosive problem

*UPDATE:* A clarification on the effects of tasers, and it looks like the Albany Police are already carrying tasers again

When now former Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff announced his retirement from his job last February I heard a lot of regret from community and neighborhood activists. This is in itself is amazing, the first time I’ve ever heard anybody say they were unhappy to lose a police chief in this town. By this alone you know the guy is somebody special, a cop who worked to make this City a better place, and to a large extant succeeded.

A few days before his retirement, Mr. Krokoff was feted at a City sponsored goodbye event at the Arbor Hill Community Center gymnasium, an event that turned into an emotional lovefest. He received so much praise from regular citizens that the man looked embarrassed. As the evening’s emcee, civil rights activist and all round thorn in the side of the police Alice Greene put it, “I never thought I’d be saying this, I’m sorry to see an Albany police chief leave town.”

Police Chief Steven Krokoff Saying Goodbye To Albany

Police Chief Steven Krokoff Saying Goodbye To Albany

After the color guard marched through the gym and after the speeches by Mayor Sheehan and by other dignitaries, and after a fabulous song by young soul singer Ariel King, some 20 or so community members lined up at a microphone to deliver praise. But it was not empty praise, there was a strong undercurrent to the comments that Mr. Krokoff, through his efforts toward reorganization, efficiency, transparency and community engagement, had prevented the kind of conflict that has convulsed police and communities across the country these last few years. Most impressively we were hearing this from black folks who live in sacrifice zones like Arbor Hill and the South End, neighborhoods which had to deal with the worst decades of police denial of service.

Five years ago Mr. Krokoff, who was 39 years old at the time, and three other young police officers staged a coup and overthrew their bosses, moribund Old Boy managers who were incapable of dealing with the massive departmental problems that had literally incapacitated the Albany Police and had impacted the community terribly. Chief Krokoff and his co-conspirators, backed by neighborhood activists, instituted a series of radical (read: commonsensical) reforms that enabled the Albany police to be able for the first time to deal effectively with crime and to take steps toward becoming part of the community in which they serve.

At The Arbor Hill Community Center Gymnasium

At The Arbor Hill Community Center Gymnasium

No one has been saying that the problems with the police department have disappeared overnight, but to anyone who has been watching, the improvements in effective police response and community relations these past five years have been impressive, even astonishing. These reforms, initiated under Chief Krokoff, have become nationally known. For example, Ferguson Missouri, the current poster child for bad police-community relations, has asked the Albany Citizen’s Police Review Board (CPRB) for advice on how to set up and conduct their equivalent board.

To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Krokoff is leaving Albany to take a job as chief of police in a place called Milton in northern Georgia, reportedly taking a cut in pay. Milton was incorporated as a City in 2006, has about a third of the population of Albany, and is extremely upscale with an average household income of almost $113,000 per according to the Census (Albany is $40,287.) At one point during the evening’s presentation, Ms. Greene made the aside comment that in Milton “there are no black people living there.”

In other words Milton is much different from Albany, in many respects the exact opposite. The story is that Mr. Krokoff’s wife’s family lives there and, as baffling as this sounds to a longtime married guy like me, he wants to live closer to his in-laws. In any case, after grappling with the problems of relations between the police and the racial and ethnic underclasses of Albany, he is moving on to a new career trying to enforce the law among privileged Southern whites who can afford lawyers.

Chief Krokoff With First Ward Common Council Representative Vivian Kornegay And Danielle

Chief Krokoff With First Ward Common Council Representative Vivian Kornegay And Danielle

I got a chance to talk to Mr. Krokoff before the evening’s ceremonies, I asked him if he was ready leave Albany. After making a quick joke about how he didn’t want to answer that, he told me that he had spent half of his life in Albany as a police officer and at one point as a parole officer. “I came on during Chief Dale,” he said, referring to the late John Dale, who was Albany’s first and only black police chief, who retired in 1995 when Jerry Jennings took office as mayor.

Mr. Krokoff pointed out that at 5+ years he has lasted longer than most Albany police chiefs. I’ve heard repeatedly that it’s a job that requires the occupant to be on call twenty-four seven, which certainly would burn out anyone after a while. He told me that after spending most of his adult life in Albany up to this point, “it’s hard to leave that behind.” I heard that. Albany can hold on pretty hard, and after a while it takes a lot of effort to get away.

But Mr. Krokoff had barely cleaned out his office on the last day of March and Deputy Chief Brendan Cox had barely moved in when an apparent police taser death and racial crisis landed in the new chief’s lap. Things had been going so well that we were all beginning to think that this sort of thing couldn’t happen here. But it did, more or less.

Second Street And Lark Street Where Donald Ivy Collapsed After A Taser Shot

Second Street And Lark Street Where Donald Ivy Collapsed After A Taser Shot

At about 12:40 in the morning on April 2nd, a 39 year old black man named Donald Ivy had an encounter with police at Second Street and Lark Street in Arbor Hill which ended with his death. Mr. Ivy, who was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, was confronted by three officers who thought he was acting suspiciously and questioned him no doubt warmly. That apparently didn’t go well and they ended up arresting him and putting him into handcuffs.

Reportedly Mr. Ivy then became agitated and started to thrash about. One of the officers hit him with a taser in order to “drop him,” that is, apply an electrical charge to to make his muscles seize up enough so that the officers can take control of him. In most cases that’s what happens, but in a significant number of cases a taser hit has the opposite effect and makes the perp more active.

Which is what happened here. After being hit by the taser Mr. Ivy broke free of the officers, ran up the sidewalk for a block or so and collapsed, lying still. The officers, immediately seeing that he was having “a medical emergency,” removed his handcuffs and applied CPR. He had gone into cardiac arrest, but he was not pronounced dead until 6AM.

Chief Cox immediately ordered an investigation, reviewing witness accounts, asking for any sort of surveillance or other video and ordering a full toxicology report. The three officers were put on paid leave pending the investigation. In addition the Chief asked for the community to withhold judgement while waiting for the investigation to be completed.

New Police Chief Brendan Cox With The Mayor’s Chief Of Staff Matt Peter At Mr. Krokoff’s Sendoff

New Police Chief Brendan Cox With The Mayor’s Chief Of Staff Matt Peter At Mr. Krokoff’s Sendoff

The new Chief is no stranger to community police confrontations in Albany, he was one of the four officers who staged the department coup back in 2010 and served as Deputy Chief, the number two job, all throughout Mr. Krokoff’s tenure as chief. Chief Cox is also quite proficient at meeting with and talking to the public. As time went on and Mr. Krokoff found it harder to meet regularly with the general public, it was Mr. Cox who attended the neighborhood meetings and other encounters, almost always managing to please and satisfy the citizens with his friendly manner and with his openness.

At the same time that the new Chief was appealing to the public to show restraint, he ordered the police officers to show particular restraint. Since the Ivy incident, no Albany officer has carried a taser, a now standard tool that the officers have come to depend on. The idea, obviously, is to avoid another similar or worse incident involving the controversial device. But this order has created some problems for the individual officers who have come to depend upon tasers to do their normal job.

For example, I heard a story from an eyewitness about a recent early morning bar closing where some fellow, apparently jacked up on a lot more than alcohol, started busting up a bar in Albany and had to be dragged out by a crowd of cops. He was so far gone that repeated applications of mace to his face didn’t bother him, even after he was put into cuffs it took three officers to wrestle him into the paddy wagon. Presumably a taser hit or two would have brought this clown under control, but that option wasn’t available to the officers because of the Ivy incident.

At The Funeral For Donald Ivy On April 13

At The Funeral For Donald Ivy On April 13

It is precisely this sort of situation, where the violent troublemaker is jacked out of his or her mind and physically stressed, where a taser may cause another case of cardiac arrest or some other serious medical problem. The last thing Chief Cox wants is to put Albany on the map with two taser related deaths a few weeks apart. I suspect it will be a fair while before Albany Police will quietly begin carrying tasers again.

I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I hear from a usually reliable source that when the report comes out, we will find out that Mr. Ivy has a long history of serious substance abuse, so serious that he was a regular visitor to the hospital emergency rooms. Of course his behavior was tied to his schizophrenia, what the mental health professionals call Self Medicating. So if this turns out to be true, his ongoing heart problems, along with whatever may have been inside his body at that moment, made him extremely vulnerable to what is really a minor electric shock.

Protest On April 3rd At The Arch Street Side Of The Morton Avenue Police Station

Protest On April 3rd At The Arch Street Side Of The Morton Avenue Police Station

It does not necessarily follow that a schizophrenic person is going to heavily abuse substances (starting with alcohol) nor does it mean that he or she is going to act out when confronted by the police. There is a schizophrenic man in my neighborhood who religiously avoids all drugs and alcohol, he is always very respectful of the police when they confront him on his nightly journeys around the City to trash pick. The only times he starts to lose control is when he doesn’t take his prescribed meds, which he does because sometimes he wants to take a vacation from the annoying side effects.

And that is the big question I want to see answered by this report, had Mr. Ivy been taking his meds the day the police confronted him? If he had not, then he would have been agitated, nervous, and likely to act out. Toxicology reports usually tell what substances were in the body, not if something that was supposed to be there was missing.

Which leads directly to the issue we have all been hearing about, how police across the country respond to mentally ill underclass persons, particularly if they are black. About 40 years ago or so the big mental institutions were closed, the places were all hellhole concentration camps and no one lamented their closure. But all too often this has meant that severely mentally ill people, particularly if they are underclass or working class, have had to live on the streets of some of the least desirable neighborhoods.

Protest March At University At Albany On April 9

Protest March At University At Albany On April 9

And by default it has become the job of the police to to deal with these folks. Is this fair to the police, who by no means are qualified as mental health professionals? While it is clear that all officers need to learn how better to identify and manage mentally ill persons when they have to confront them, it seems to me that the real problem that needs to be dealt with is how mentally ill people should be managed by our society. And that is a big problem.

Most of us want to keep people like Donald Ivy completely out of sight and out of mind, and many of our public policies are geared toward doing exactly that. That means that we expect the police to forcibly keep the Donald Ivys out of sight without bothering us, and we become resentful when we are forced to look at such dreadful realities. It’s not a wonder that the police are angry and baffled by public response to such cases, after all they have just been doing what we nice respectable people have wanted them to do.

Taser Being Fired

Taser Being Fired

How dangerous are tasers? According to Amnesty International there have been 634 taser-related deaths in the United States as of October 2014. Official government figures are somewhat lower, and there are disputes about what exactly constitutes a taser related death. In the majority of cases the person receiving a fatal taser hit had existing medical issues and/or was jacked up on stress-inducing drugs like meth or PCP.

A typical police taser is a firearm that shoots a pair of wires tipped with barbed prongs into the clothing or body of the perp. An electric charge jumps across the prongs and shocks the entire body. The device generates 50,000 volts of power but actually more like 400 volts shoot through the perp’s body, delivered in three or four bursts for five seconds each. Amazingly, most tasers only use four AA batteries, although others use rechargeable lithium batteries that are the same as the batteries used for power tools.

A taser can be deployed only once at a time, after that the batteries have to be recharged and the wires have be rewound and reset. Like a BB gun the firing force is provided by a CO2 cartridge, that also has to be replaced before the taser is used again. Some tasers can be deployed as much as 20 feet away, but I’m told that because the longer the distance the higher the power loss, tasers deliver more of a charge if fired closer to the target.

The X26 And The M26 Are The Tasers Most Used By Police

The X26 And The M26 Are The Tasers Most Used By Police

A security professional pointed out to me that tasers are actually safer than the old fashioned billy club to the skull, which is more than likely to cause concussion. If you look at this in terms of legal liability, it is the poor that cannot afford justice and who will find themselves beaten and very easily permanently injured by a billy club, meanwhile wealthier people can purchase civil rights and thus make it effectively impossible for the police to use clubs or tasers on them. Thus, as bizarre as it sounds, one can very plausibly argue that using a taser on the poor instead of a club is actually a significant step toward acknowledging their civil rights.

At the same time tasers are more effective than mace. Like in the example of the violent bar patron described above, mace is often ineffective when it is most needed. Tasers fill in this effectiveness gap, immobilizing the more out of control persons long enough to bring them under control. Usually. But even if they don’t kill and maim anywhere near as much as clubs they don’t always work as intended, they don’t always immobilize.

A well known current case is that of the fellow in South Carolina named Walter Scott who was shot in the back eight times by an officer who is now being charged with murder. The horrific video shows that first the cop hit Mr. Scott with a taser, after which he took off running. Both Mr. Ivy and Mr. Scott actually became more active after being tased, a quick search reveals that this happens a lot.

Close Up Of A Taser Prong

Close Up Of A Taser Prong

Along with that, I’ve been wondering how being tased can affect one’s mind. A recent study conducted at Arizona State University looked at how tasers affect one’s ability to think and reason. 142 students were given a standard verbal cognition test starting at ten minutes after each of them were hit with a police taser. The study found:

Students who were tased did significantly worse than the control group. On average, they lost about five points on the test 10 minutes after the shock, with some students scoring within what is considered a normal range and others testing positive for mild cognitive impairment, [researcher Robert] Kane said.

Compared to the students who were not shocked, the tased students had significantly reduced cognitive functioning, Kane said. "It really affected some of them," he said. "Some of them started to cry. They felt diminished or overwhelmed." Most students, but not all of the tased students, recovered to their baseline after an hour, the researchers said. It's unclear why getting tased affects some people more than others...

Something tells me that this study, the results of which were released last October, is just the tip of the iceberg. Can a person be said to be aware of their civil rights after they have been tased, can they be expected to act in a reasonable manner? The study suggests that maybe being tased can affect one emotionally and perhaps stimulate the kind of behavior that tasers are supposed to abridge. And what are the longterm effects?

A Taser Is A Firearm, A Stun Gun Is Not

A Taser Is A Firearm, A Stun Gun Is Not

According to the industry people, tasers are used almost a thousand times a day by the police in the US. This reflects not only the advertising of the industry, which insists that tasers are completely safe and have no ill effects, but also the tendency of Americans to embrace and become dependent upon new gadgets as labor saving devices. And occasionally the tasers are used merely to inflict pain. An example is the punk kid who led sheriff’s deputies on a harrowing car chase through the Albany suburb of Colonie, and after the kid was out of the car on his knees with his hands behind his head, a deputy tased him in the neck out of spite.

That deputy was immediately fired by Sheriff Craig Apple after he reviewed the dash cam in the patrol car, but this points to what I think is the main problem with tasers. Because they are so easy to use they are easy to overuse. A device that is probably the best available for controlling out of control violent persons is being used to inflict pain on live human beings at the most inappropriate times as if it were a harmless toy.

It is this often almost casual overuse that puts tasers at the heart of the issue of police and community relations. People are understandably freaked out by the mere thought of being hit with an electric charge, coupled with the idea that the police may be looking for excuses to apply shocks is leading to outright rebellion by the public. In the end, the responsibility falls on the individual police officers to be more circumspect about when they use the devices, and in particular to show particular restraint when dealing with mentally ill persons.

Protest At The Morton Avenue Police Station For Donald Ivy, April 3

Protest At The Morton Avenue Police Station For
Donald Ivy, April 3

On April 2nd at 7 in the evening a protest over the Donald Ivy death took place at the Arch Street side of the police station on Morton Avenue, downhill from my house. I didn’t join the protest, but I did go down about 7:20 when it was just getting started to take pictures. I would say there were about 300 people with more arriving, along with plenty of media both corporate and otherwise, along with the usual camera phones.

When I arrived the crowd was strangely silent and not moving around much. This wasn’t like all the peace and social justice protests that happen all the time, in those you see all the usual suspect activists happily setting things up and greeting each other like it’s a social event. Which for them it usually is, no matter how serious the issue. Like the late great Molly Ivins once pointed out, “You got to have fun while you're fightin' for freedom, 'cause you don't always win.”

Albany is not a big town, it’s odd for me to see such a big crowd and only recognize a few faces. These were mostly folks who had never done something like this before. They kind of stood there holding signs wondering what comes next. Chant slogans? What slogans? Should they march? Riot? What next?

April 3rd Protest

April 3rd Protest

Later, I found out from The Wife that radio station WAMC had announced the evening protest at least five times that afternoon. (She listens to that corporate propaganda when I’m not around to complain.) Later I discovered that the Time-Warner TV station channel 9 and also TV10 had been also been announcing the protest. As much as I hate to admit it, the power of the corporate media to influence behavior is still quite strong.

On the other hand, this shows that local people really are concerned about this issue, even though this Albany incident is hardly comparable to some of the horrific police shootings that have been in the national news lately. In contrast, there have been numerous examples of how Teabaggers and other rad righties can’t be cajoled into getting up off their couches and attending public rallies. Recently when the Miami “Tea Party” wanted to protest habitat restoration of part of the Everglades, they were forced to hire paid actors to conduct the protest.

Albany is not Ferguson, Missouri, this mob of protesters were faced with a small line of bicycle cops. Bicycle cops! And none of them were carrying tasers. Chief Cox read this situation perfectly, these folks were out merely to make a point, and, I might add, to participate in what has turned into a national protest. From everything I’ve been seeing the Chief’s policy is to not escalate the problems, and at the same time make sure that the police and the authorities not exclude the community from what is very much a public issue.

Police On April 3rd Facing The Protesters, Not Carrying Tasers

Police On April 3rd Facing The Protesters, Not Carrying Tasers

I noted all the homemade signs expressing sympathy for Donald Ivy, and as I left the crowd finally broke into a chant of “Black lives matter.” But as a friend later pointed out to me, “Where were all these people when he was alive? Would any of them help a schizophrenic black man with substance problems before he’s dead?”

That’s the key to all this. Essentially the Ivy incident is not about tasers, nor is it about police attitudes toward black and underclass and mentally ill persons, but it is all about how you and I regard our neighbors and about what we expect from the authorities and from the police. We can only hope that these protests and confrontations will lead to a serious examination of at least some of the underlying problems that are causing the killings, perhaps they will.

 


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Posted by:Roger Green
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Thanks for putting in the permalink. When I've linked in the past, I had to extrapolate it.


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