Oct. 24, 2011
By BRENDAN J. LYONS
ALBANY — In a tense battle of wills, state troopers and Albany police held off making arrests of dozens of protesters near the Capitol over the weekend even as Albany’s mayor, under pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s administration, had urged his police chief to enforce a city curfew.
The situation intensified late Friday evening when Jennings, who has cultivated a strong relationship with Cuomo, directed his department to arrest protesters who refused to leave the city-owned portion of a large park that’s across Washington Avenue from the Capitol and City Hall.
At the Capitol, in anticipation of possibly dozens of arrests, a State Police civil disturbance unit was quietly activated, according to officials briefed on the matter but not authorized to comment publicly. But as the curfew neared, the group of protesters estimated at several hundred moved across an invisible line in the park from state land onto city property.
“We were ready to make arrests if needed, but these people complied with our orders,” a State Police official said. However, he added that State Police supported the defiant posture of Albany police leaders to hold off making arrests for the low-level offense of trespassing, in part because of concern it could incite a riot or draw thousands of protesters in a backlash that could endanger police and the public.
“We don’t have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble,” the official said. “The bottom line is the police know policing, not the governor and not the mayor.”
A city police source said his department also was reluctant to damage what he considers to be good community relations that have taken years to rebuild. In addition, the crowd included elderly people and many others who brought their children with them.
“There was a lot of discussion about how it would look if we started pulling people away from their kids and arresting them … and then what do we do with the children?” one officer said.
Around midnight Friday, police leaders reported that the protesters were confined to city sidewalks and therefore they were not in violation of the city’s curfew governing park land. But in truth, the protesters had set up tents in the park and several dozen slept there.
Meanwhile, Albany County District Attorney David Soares on Sunday said that over the weekend he had conversations with Jennings, Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff and State Police officials about his concerns regarding prosecution of “peaceful protesters.”
Soares said protests at the state Capitol are common, and historically anyone arrested for trespassing generally faces a low-level charge that’s later dismissed.
“Our official policy with peaceful protesters is that unless there is property damage or injuries to law enforcement, we don’t prosecute people protesting,” Soares said. “If law enforcement engaged in a pre-emptive strike and started arresting people I believe it would lead to calamitous results, and the people protesting so far are peaceful.”