Village Police: Yes or no?

October 3, 2012

—Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

This is a story about a Malone neighborhood which is saying “No!” to violent behavior and violent language in our neighborhood.

It’s a story about a neighborhood group which is pushing back against the “trashing” of our community by young men and women and teenagers (and even, believe it or not, children) who think they can freely vent their aggressions and anger on our streets.

It is a story about an experiment in “what it means to be a neighborhood” by a loosely organized group of property owners who call themselves the Clay-Milwaukee Neighborhood Group.  I am an enthusiastic member of this group.

First, a clarification.  We are not against the people who display this behavior in our neighborhood.  (Yes, it is our neighborhood, and we will go to great lengths to preserve its peace and safety and tranquility and beauty.)  We are against their behavior.  In fact, we are happy to welcome these people into our neighborhood, either as residents or just strolling through, so long as they respect this neighborhood ethic.  (“Ethics” is a good word.  It’s time to dust it off and reinstate it in our vocabulary and our daily lives—as a community.  Neighborhoods are “corporate bodies” and, like all corporate entities, they have an ethic—whether good or bad.  Our neighborhood has a good one—and we intend to protect it.)

U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp

Our neighborhood ethic would be doomed without the services of the valiant men & women wearing a badge.  Like U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp, above.  Peace officers like Wyatt Earp make for great historical legend, but don’t ever forget that he was a real man and a real marshall (and sheriff) and he performed a real job—and that real job was really really essential.

Sames goes for our Village police and our code officer.  Take away the Village police and Malone becomes a 19th-century lawless, violent frontier town—on the frontier called the North Country.  Here’s a foretaste of where Malone is headed, from today’s Telegram, “Police Officer in Malone Is Injured in Altercation.”

In truth, the reason I’m telling this story at all is because the future of the Malone Police Dept (Malone PD) is in serious jeopardy.  Same is true, of course, for the Village Code Office, but I have addressed the matter of the Code Office in earlier articles.  (I’m happy to report, incidentally, that the Code Office responded with vigor to our pleas to roll back the “slumification” of Malone.)

In case you haven’t been paying attention, Village residents will vote next month on “dissolving” the Village government.  If the majority of voters vote “yea,” the Village government and all its departments will disappear as a formal, legal entity, to be absorbed into the Town of Malone—regardless of whether Town residents or the Town Board want this or not.

This means the Village Police Dept would also vanish, since it operates at the sole discretion of the Village government.  Take away the Village government and you take away the Village police.  Poof!  Just like that!

Well, not quite “poof”!  There would be a 2-year “transition” phase when everyone wrings their hands and runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to come up with a plan (and money) to fund a new Police Dept—an issue fraught with problems, including at the State level.

Although it’s true every member of the Town Board in principle supports the continuation of a Village Police Dept, all 5 members are flummoxed over how to make it happen.  This is not to chastise the Town Board; it’s simply to admit that continuing a Village Police Dept without a Village is a financial and legal quagmire.

The risk being, of course, that at the end of the day the Malone PD would be sacrificed to “austerity” measures.  “Austerity” being a high-falutin’ yet weasel word to mean the following:

I’m broke and I can’t think creatively about how to fix my problem, so I’m going to ditch this program, regardless of how essential it is.  I’ll make the process seem painless by using some sleight-of-hand:  I’ll claim I am cutting ‘fat’ and ‘waste’ out of my budget, and go on to say I’m getting rid of ‘non-essential services.’  In other words, I’ll use phony words and slippery language and imagery to make it sound as though this program is expendable.”

That is, the Malone PD would vanish.  Either that, or its duties would be taken over by a jury-rigged (I’m tempted to say “half-assed,” but will forebear) and far less effective “public security” program—a program which looks good on paper and sounds good in political speechifying and pontificating, but in fact would be nowhere near as successful as our current PD

Full disclosure?  I’m telling this story because I’m scared.  Scared because nobody really knows what the outcome will be if the Village is disbanded as a legal entity.  Should that happen, the question of whether the Village has a PD or not will be in the hands of people (the voters of the Town of Malone, and NYS bureaucrats) who, with all due respect, don’t experience what my neighbors & I experience.

For my neighborhood, there is no question of whether the Village should have a PD.  For us, having a Police Dept is not an abstraction, not a “talking point,” not “rhetoric” or “dollars & cents” or “budgets” or “austerity measures” or, for that matter, “pie in the sky.”  For us, having a Police Dept is the difference between whether we continue living here or not.

Yes, it’s that stark.

Can I be even more explicit?  If this man disappears . . .

Officer William André

. . . this couple disappears:

Yeah, that’s my wife and me.  (Old picture, but it’ll do.)

Now I’ll tell you my story and let you decide whether I’m being—what shall we call it?—a bit “extreme” in saying we would leave.

Here’s some “extremism” for you.  Savor it.  Roll it around in your mind for awhile.

Do you remember the blue, “shoebox” shaped house at 52 Milwaukee Street?  Right across from the House of History.  52 Milwaukee was occupied by a series of tenants whose behavior was violent and totally unacceptable by any standards of decency.  All efforts to reason with them were met with—well, you can imagine the language and finger gestures they were met with.

52 Milwaukee

#52 was such a hell-hole that the District Attorney devoted a surveillance camera solely and exclusively to this house—mounted on the phone pole across the street.  That tells it all.

Virtually every neighboring family wanted to sell and move away, to get away from this reign of terror.  (Stop and think for a moment.  If the neighbors sold and moved away, it doesn’t take a genius to realize they would sell at a loss, and in short order their homes would turn into slums and hell-holes like 52 Milwaukee had become.  I refer to this process as the “slumification” of Malone.  It’s a cancer, and one of its sources is places like 52 Milwaukee.)

52 Milwaukee:  Before

Anyhow, the Clay-Milwaukee Neighborhood Group did something bold about it.  First, we worked closely with the Village police and District Attorney to determine the severity of the problem at 52 Milwaukee.  They confirmed our worst fears.  The police managed to keep things under control at #52 until our group managed to purchase the property—and tear down the damn house!  (It wasn’t worth fixing up.  Trust me.)

Today, what was for years “ground zero” for anguish and terror, is a—lawn.  Grass.  Silent.  Serene.  Safe.

Nothing but green grass.

(I used the word “terror.”  I used it advisedly.  I am the one who interviewed the young children who lived next door to #52, and they described in graphic detail the terror they lived with.  I am the one who heard from the frightened mother next door to #52, whose terrified children would crawl in bed with her in the middle of the night.  I am the one who walked into Dr. Pierpont’s office and said, eyes brimming with tears, “Honey, we need to do something about that place!  We need to do it for those children.  This is child abuse!”  Dr. Pierpont, a behavioral pediatrician, agreed.)

52 Milwaukee:  After

Notice the balloons, above.  Happy neighbors.  Kids are now playing out on the street and front yards—like normal kids do.  The reign of terror was planted to grass seed, thanks to Dan Lashomb and his company, Earth in Motion.

Fast forward to a couple of days ago.  Friday afternoon, 3:00 pm.  Lovely autumn day.  Dr Pierpont is seeing a child and his dad in her office at 19 Clay.  Drs Shah and Baghat are seeing patients in their medical office at the end of Clay St.  Neighborhood children are home from school.  The retired postmistress, across the street, is home.  The young couple with the newborn are home, next door to me.  The Chinese lady is home from working at the hospital.  The elderly women who live in the lovely rental two doors down from me are home.  Eighty-five-year-old Mrs. Marshall is home.

Suddenly, I hear a commotion out on Clay Street.  I step outside and I’m confronted by two groups of people (young men & women in their late teens, early twenties) screaming “f**k you” at one another.

Clay St., Malone

One group—an enraged youth on a bicycle, who is accompanied by 3 or 4 young women, one of them pushing a baby stroller—is standing in the middle of the street immediately in front of our home.  (See the red “explosion” symbol in the image, above, next to “Doctor’s office.”)  The youth with the bicycle is shouting obscenities down the street at two similarly-aged young men who live at Jack & Elvira Stewart’s rental at 28 Clay.  (See the red “explosion” symbol next to “Stewart rental.”)

Pause, for a moment.  Pause to savor this scene.  This bedlam.  “Hell,” itself, has suddenly materialized in our neighborhood—in front of my door at 3:00 on a balmy autumn afternoon.  Who are these people?  Where do they live?  Where do they come from?  What on earth are they thinking?  The questions pour out, plaintively, uncomprehendingly, painfully.

Do you want to know the real tragedy?  The real tragedy is, this experience is not rare.  When 52 Milwaukee was still in full swing, this kind of street “hell” was common.  Now that 52 Milwaukee is a lawn, it has died down considerably—though obviously not completely.

Before I return to this bizarre scene, I want to make sure you understand:  This is terrorism!  I’m going to repeat that, because I’m afraid some of you didn’t grasp what I just said.  I said, this is terrorism!  No, it’s not identical to the attack on the World Trade Center, nevertheless it is still terrorism.  It is neighborhood terrorism.  It is community terrorism.  Ask the children, cowering indoors.  Ask the elderly women who live on Clay Street.  Ask the young mothers.  Ask Dr Pierpont, who told me she was frightened.  Ask, finally, me.  I am a 64 year old man.  I have seen a lot and lived through a lot.  And at 3:00 pm on Friday, I was being terrorized by people who are barely above the age of “children.”  (What kind of parenting do these youth get?  Sadly, I know the answer.  They grow up being yelled at, punched & slapped, bullied, humiliated—systematically humiliated—and the biggest lesson they learn in life is “shame.”  They grow up learning to hate themselves and they seethe with anger, often.)

So, what did I do?  I strode out into the street and exclaimed, “Hey, you can’t talk like that here!”  This merely served to anger the screaming young man even more, whereupon he turned up the volume and invective he was hurling at the two youths in front of 28 Clay.  I walked up to him and shouted (to be heard over his shouting), “You can’t use language like that here!

Whereupon he turned to look at me, and yelled at me to “f**k myself.”  (Predictable response.)  I told him to “beat it” and “You can’t destroy this neighborhood with this behavior,” to which he flung back his all-purpose, “f**k you!”

Then he and his smirking female entourage shuffled off down the street, to Main St, every so often turning to holler “f**k you” at me.

I now strode down to 28 Clay and spoke (on the sidewalk) to the two youths who had catalyzed this mayhem.  I told them they could not behave like this, here.  One of them looked at me in scorn; the other paid a modicum of attention.  The latter told me he was recently released from prison.  It turns out both do not “officially” live at 28 Clay; they are both “crash padding” with a tenant, David Dodge, who takes in homeless young men & women who help him pay his rent.  (I find this poignant and tragic.)

28 Clay

When I got home, I called the Malone police.  Sergeant Merrick was on duty.  I asked for the chief (Chief Premo) to give me a call, since I wanted his advice on how to process this experience.  The chief called back several minutes later, I sketched out what had happened, and he suggested that Officer André stop by and discuss it.

Within minutes, Officer André pulled up in his cruiser and listened carefully as I reviewed what had happened.  We agreed that I would file a complaint with the Police Dept for the Municipal Court.  Officer André offered to drive down to 28 Clay and see if he could interview the two young men who catalyzed this.  I thanked him for this.  Meanwhile, I went in and typed out a detailed description of what had happened.  Officer André stopped by an hour or so later and picked up my statement, and reported on the “run around” he got from tenants at 28 Clay.

The next morning, Officer André pulled into my driveway, with my formal complaint ready for me to sign.  It turned out he had made another visit to 28 Clay since Friday—another “complaint” call to David Dodge’s apartment—and while there he discovered the two young men who supposedly didn’t “live” with David, who now confessed to Officer André that they were, in fact, living there.  From them he was able to learn the name of the angry young man on the bicycle.

I expect to appear before either Judge Lamitie or Judge Cositore in a few weeks, to lodge my complaint against these 3 young men, all of them barely 20 years old.

I’ll give you a preview of what I will say to the court.  I will ask the court to fine them.  I will also ask the court to put them on probation for this behavior.  And then I will do something strange:  I will tell the court that I will pay their fine.  And I will request the judge to transfer their probation to me—that I be put on probation, instead of them.

Why on earth would I do that?  To show all three men (who are not bad people:  quite frankly, I have almost never met someone whom I consider a “bad person”) that there is grace and kindness—and there is compassion—in this world.  I’m betting on the idea that all 3 have been knocked around and abused, verbally and physically, throughout their short lives.  I want them to see they are being held accountable for their behavior—that’s what the court appearance is about—but at the same time, that their accuser (me) will bear their punishment on their behalf.  (Yes, I am being serious.)

You see, I grew up with kids like this.  We called them “juvenile delinquents” in my day.  My dad, a preacher, took these kids into our home.  (I learned lots of valuable stuff from these guys:  how to steal a car, how to break into a house, how to talk really bad, how to unhook a girl’s bra with just one hand, and so on.  Better yet, I learned that these guys got messed up as children, and that they generally responded well to compassion and kindness—because they’re just human, after all.)

Which brings me back to Officer André.  I want to suggest that Officer André and his colleagues are not “cops”; they are immeasurably more than this.  For many people in Malone, the Village police are surrogate parents, they are big brothers, they are a conscience, they set boundaries, they represent sanity and order and good behavior.  They set the “ethical” bar.  I could go on and on.  Officer André and his colleagues know all the people in the Village who are beset with behavior problems—like the three I confronted this past Friday.  This knowledge is invaluable.  Indeed, it’s essential to a healthy community.  We would be foolish to throw away this knowledge—this relationship—in voting for Village “dissolution.”

Last month, at a Village Board meeting where residents were invited to advise the Board on whether to support “dissolution,” Attorney Kevin Nichols said something which has resonated with me:  “Police are a mark of civilization!”

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The Clay-Milwaukee Neighborhood Group is struggling to bring civility to our neighborhood.  We think our neighborhood is worth saving, and worth the $70,000 we have spent so far—and counting.  (That figure includes the money we spend on flowers for the street, every summer.)

The Village police are essential partners in our effort.  A vibrant, well-staffed Village police force is, quite frankly, what keeps my wife and me here.  I suspect this is true of many Villagers, and over time it will become increasingly true throughout the Village as America’s economic woes (indeed, the world’s economic woes) worsen in the years ahead.  Poverty and despair, and the host of social ills accompanying both, are going to increase exponentially in the Village.  (Remember the girl pushing the baby stroller in the scene I described, above.  That’s where the term “exponential” comes in.)

To launch ourselves into this kind of future without a realistic Village police force is, frankly, lunacy.

There is another cost we must include in our calculations.  To jeopardize the Village police force is to drive out at least one medical office—and more professionals and businesses will follow.  This myopic process has a name; it’s called a “false economy.”  It’s really quite elementary, and it happens in every town and city throughout America that succumbs to anarchy (reign of terror):  The people who can move—and my wife & I can move—will do so.  And you will be left with . . .

Keep this in mind—Do we want civilized neighborhoods or slums & anarchy?—when you vote on November 6th.

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Postscript:  Here are two photos of 52 Milwaukee, taken yesterday afternoon (10/5/12)
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52 Milwaukee (Photo taken 10/5/12)

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52 Milwaukee (Photo taken 10/5/12)