A photo shared on Facebook of police involved in a hostage training scenario at buildings that are scheduled to be demolished at Ida Yarbourgh Apartments in Albany March 21, 2013. Albany police said they’re reviewing training procedures after complaints about the proximity of tear gas and the release of fake ammunition to apartments that are still occupied.
Police training exercise draws criticism
Residents of Ida Yarbrough describe explosions and gunfire; chief apologizes
By Lauren Stanforth
Police Chief Steven Krokoff says his department was “insensitive” when it conducted a training exercise that involved police firing blank ammunition and using flash grenades near occupied apartments at the Ida J. Yarbrough Homes.
The chief said the department will review how it conducts “neighborhood-based training” after Thursday’s operation drew criticism from residents who said they were frightened by a chaotic scene that seemed real to them.
Krokoff released a statement as photos of the incident spread on Facebook. The pictures showed armed officers in tactical gear as well as fake blood and spent shell casings that were left behind at part of the public housing complex that is now deserted and slated for demolition.
Police said they went door-to-door before the training to notify residents, but many were caught off guard when the teams descended Thursday morning reportedly shooting fake bullets and throwing flash grenades and tear gas into the vacant building during the exercise.
“We wake up to the sound the next morning of literally small bombs,” said an Ida Yarbrough resident and state worker, who spoke only on condition she not be identified. “All you could hear was ‘pop, pop, pop’ of an assault rifle, police screaming ‘clear!’ I really thought I was in the middle of a war zone — and I have a four-year-old.”
The empty apartments used for the training are in front of a parking lot and steps away from two other buildings that are still filled with tenants.
Bernie Bryan, president of the Albany chapter of the NAACP, visited the complex Sunday afternoon and found that the door at one of the units — No. 165 — was still open, with spent shell casings still littering the floor inside. A gooey substance that appeared to be fake blood stained the sidewalk outside.
A resident also approached a reporter Sunday and opened his hand to show two shell casings he said he found lying outside one of the apartments that morning.
Bryan wondered why the police couldn’t have chosen one of the vacant buildings that sits farther away across a muddy courtyard where heavy equipment is stationed awaiting the demolition project.
“The folks in this neighborhood might not have the financial means, but are entitled to the same respect,” Bryan said, adding, “Whoever made the decision to do this was asleep at the switch.”
Contacted Sunday about the incident, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings said “I don’t think it was necessary to do it the way it was done. The training is necessary, but obviously there should be information that should be shared.” When told about the open apartment with shell casings inside, Jennings said he would send someone over immediately to clean up the apartment and lock the door.
Police said the training consisted of hostage rescues and involved simulated ammunition and injuries. Similar training has been done before in other unoccupied facilities in the city, the chief said.
“I certainly did not mean to offend the very people that we are training to protect,” Krokoff said in a statement issued Saturday. “In retrospect, it was insensitive to conduct this type of training in the vicinity of occupied residences. We will review how we conduct our neighborhood-based training in the future and include the community in evaluating its appropriateness.” The chief couldn’t be reached for further comment Sunday.
Albany Common Council member Barbara Smith, who represents Ida Yarbrough in the Fourth Ward, said that she’s never heard of training occurring so close to a residential area. “What I have been made aware of I find disturbing,” said Smith. She said she will raise the matter for further discussion among the entire council.
The apartments are vacant because they are slated to be demolished as part of a $11.8 million project that will replace 129 low-rise units with 80 newer, more efficient apartments. The project is being paid for through the sale of federal low-income housing tax credits and the state’s Low-Income Housing Trust Fund.
A protest of the police’s training has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the corner of Livingston Avenue and North Pearl Street.
“You can’t just take poor people and say ‘You’re going to do this and do that with them,’ ” said Ira McKinley, a local documentary film maker who is orchestrating the event. “We’re organizing to formulate our own citizen action group. We’re going to educate our communities.”