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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 7, 2009
Salerno says, “People think this is Mayberry”
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT Two years of police dispatch data sketches a patchwork of activity for the Altamont Police department, which Commissioner Anthony Salerno summarizes as “community policing.”
According to New York’s criminal justice statistics, except for 2007 when larceny bumped the reported crime total up to 10, Altamont’s level of crime has remained essentially flat over the last five years, fluctuating between three and five crimes a year.
Half of Altamont’s police activity is for traffic stops. The next most frequent activity is answering complaints, followed by property checks for absent homeowners, and arriving at the scene when an ambulance is called.
The Altamont force has one full-time post, the commissioner, and 10 part-time officers. Salerno, a long-time Albany police officer, was appointed Altamont’s public safety commissioner in 2005. A former police chief, George Pratt, used to say crime didn’t happen in Altamont, because he wouldn’t allow it.
The village is about one square mile and has a population of about 1,700. Altamont is also covered by three other police agencies the New York State Troopers, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, and the Guilderland Police. Some village residents have complained about excessive police presence.
The Enterprise obtained data from January 2007 through March 2009 showing Guilderland dispatch calls handled for the Altamont area. When a person in Altamont calls the police, it is routed to the police station at Town Hall in Guilderland. The type of phone call is then determined and, if the Altamont police force is on duty and officers are available, the call is transferred and followed up in Altamont. A dispatch number is also assigned when officers encounter an incident while out in public or in their cars.
There were over 1,300 dispatch calls assigned to the Altamont Police Department in 2007 and over 1,100 for 2008. Additionally, Guilderland police responded to dispatch calls in Altamont 169 times in 2007 and 158 times in 2008, reflecting emergencies during times when the Altamont police were not on duty.
Traffic-related stops make up about half of the Altamont police activity that is reflected in the data, the numbers of which are comprised of both speed traps and incidents that prompt police to pull cars over.
Police activity, including traffic stops, heats up in the summer. There were 230 traffic stops in the summer of 2007 versus 101 in the winter. The next year, 2008, showed a decline in traffic stops with the highest, 165, being in the fall quarter, and the least in the winter with 119. In October alone, there were 85 traffic stops.
Salerno says he is pleased to see the year on year decline of 696 traffic-related stops in 2007 versus 528 stops in 2008. “Tickets are down because we’re doing our job,” he said. “We’re adamant on vehicle violations so I want to see that decline.”
According to the dispatch data, time not spent by the Altamont cops enforcing traffic laws is spent on a smorgasbord of other police work, which is outlined in the pie chart. When it comes to incidences with animals, Guilderland, which has its own animal-control units and Altamont police cooperate. Salerno said that for complaints, such as a dog barking, Altamont would take the call and speak to the dog’s owner in an attempt to mediate the problem and stop it from going further.
If a second complaint is made, it is referred to animal control in Guilderland. If it ultimately becomes a court matter, Salerno does the deposition and summons the plaintiff to court.
Curtis Cox, captain of the Guilderland Police Department, said that the spikes in the numbers of calls dispatchers took in the second and third quarters of 2008 may have something to do with the pit bull attacks on two Altamont cats in late August, when numerous people called the station reporting the incident.
Cox also said that dog complaints spike in the summertime, as do calls about bats getting inside people’s homes.
The second most frequent activity logged for Altamont police is property checking. Both Altamont and Guilderland police will check on vacationers’ homes. Residents who are going away can fill out a form at the police department, specifying the dates when their houses will be empty and if and when people might be coming to, for instance, care for a pet.
The police then drive to the property and walk around. Salerno would not specify when or how often this service is provided, saying that information would compromise Altamont citizens.
Since the second quarter of 2007, property checks by the Altamont police have declined in the dispatch reports. However, Salerno explained that his police are still checking as many properties as they used to. They are just not using the police radio to register the incident with the dispatcher.
Salerno said he and his team began doing the property checks off radio after a rise in burglaries in Guilderland and Rotterdam. Potential burglars could be listening to police scanners for the location of homes whose owners were away.
When asked if doing things like property checks without generating a record through a dispatcher could be abused by the Altamont police, Salerno replied, “It goes back to supervision. I am continuously supervising my men. I will address a problem if I know they’re not doing what they’re supposed to. I’ll find out. I’m conscious of what my people are doing. I’m not always in the office. I’m out there participating with them. It shows leadership.”
Salerno further explained that there are times, such as when Altamont police are working at the fairgrounds in the summertime, when there is so much activity that the police use the fairgrounds communication system instead of the dispatcher. At times such as these, Salerno said, only an arrest is called in to the Guilderland dispatcher.
Captain Cox stressed the importance of dispatch records in his own department, saying, “The Guilderland Police Department is required to log in all activity. It’s a tool for us to be able to use record keeping for a purpose. If he [Salerno] chooses not to use it to its fullest extent, that’s his discretion. The Altamont police would fall under the direction of the commissioner, who would dictate whether or not they record activities.”
While property checks and traffic stops are on the wane in Altamont, calls for emergency medical services have been steadily rising in the last two years, peaking in the second quarter of 2008 at 23 responses. Since Salerno became the commissioner of public safety in 2005, he says he has striven for consistency and all of the people on the police force are trained to be first responders.
“I believe, as a paramedic, which I was, that EMS is very important,” said Salerno. “This is not a metropolitan area and response times here are not like they are in a city. Even though the Altamont rescue squad does a great job, if the paid members aren’t there, it’s a volunteer system. We try to get there before EMS to mitigate circumstances and all of our officers are first responders. We had an event where a kid was choking…If people are in need, they want to see someone fast.”
The wide range of police activities reflected in the data are the key for him, said Salerno, because they comprise what he calls “quality-of-life” issues. “Our most important role,” he said, “is to be attentive to all the residents and to mediate their problems no matter how severe or how little. The quality-of-life issues are important to a community because, once you don’t be attentive to them, it moves up to another level of problems.”
Over the last four years, Salerno has been periodically criticized for being overly attentive in his policing and, in one case, was accused of “excessive and bullying treatment” of an 18-year-old who was pulled over on three separate occasions; the third time where he was arrested for hosting a party with underage drinking. Mayor James Gaughan and Trustee Kerry Dineen, who hired the commissioner, later cleared Salerno of those charges but Salerno has no regrets with how the situation was handled.
“Parents have indicated to me that they were grateful that we ended up doing the right thing and explaining to kids right there they can’t be doing this,” said Salerno. “They were grateful that someone intervened.”
Salerno insists that this aspect of his personality, which some people criticize, is keeping Altamont safe. He cites a June 2008 arrest of a 22-year-old male who robbed the Altamont Subway sandwich shop on Main Street.
“We had five officers who started at 7 a.m. and we made the arrest at 12:30 at night. Why?” Salerno asked, answering himself, “We didn’t just walk in and take a report and process the scene. We worked it. That sends a message to the criminal that in Altamont it’s not that easy. People think this is Mayberry. You want to know why crime is down? Because they know crime doesn’t pay here.”
He thumbs through a thick burglary case file filled with photos and paperwork that is currently being processed. He says the defense attorney was dismayed when he realized that Salerno was the officer who put together the case because of Salerno’s reputation for thoroughness. “The lawyer said to me, ‘Of all the people it had to be you.’”