SARATOGA SPRINGS — Assistant city Police Chief John Catone anxiously drummed his fingers atop the council table inside the newly reopened chamber at City Hall. A room of reporters assembled for the press briefing waited for him to find his words.
“Today I am speaking directly to the people of this city,” Catone said, looking over the rim of the pair of eyeglasses perched atop his nose.
“How can we, in Saratoga Springs, make sure we don’t become a destination location known for violence,” he said. “We’re at a seminal moment in this city’s history. We can become a city known for its violence, or, we can stop it immediately by everyone getting on board and working together.”
The press briefing was prompted by a series of incidents that have occurred in downtown Saratoga Springs during the past few weeks.
Most recently, a 2 a.m. weekend altercation on Caroline Street saw a fight break out involving 15 to 20 people; a 26-year-old man suffered a stab wound to his torso and some rounds from a handgun were discharged into the air, causing the crowd to flee. The incident may potentially be related to gang-on-gang violence, or perhaps may be retaliatory action connected with a knife-related episode on Caroline Street last month, police said. Authorities have recovered a “ghost gun,” two spent rounds and a live round. There are people of interest, police said, and some “are known gang members.” As of this week, no one has been charged.
“The last three weekends down there have looked like Travers Weekend,” said Catone, referring to the racecourse event that typically draws massive crowds downtown in late July. “So, from this weekend through Labor Day Weekend we’re going to approach it like every weekend is Travers Weekend. That’s the approach we’re going to have
to take until we get conformity, until we get cooperation, and until we end the violence that’s been going on.”
Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said current city police staffing levels are at 67 and anticipated the department could use an additional 20 in number. With COVID-related cutbacks affecting city finances, however, that’s a tough get.
The city police department has engaged in conversation with a range of agencies – State Police, the county sheriff’s department, the FBI, State Liquor Authority, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Albany Police Department and Crime Analysis Center – among them, to formulate a plan to address the recent acts of violence in Saratoga Springs.
“We’re going to do everything in our power, with our partners, to saturate the downtown area with a strong police presence,” said Catone, assigning blame for the incidents on several factors including a narrative of “hate, lies and disinformation” that unfavorably labels and demonizes police, city political hopefuls running for election in November who have attached themselves to that narrative, and the failures of state leaders and legislators, all serving to create a changed mindset that embolden criminals, he said.
“The shooting was only a small part of the whole mess this weekend,” said Catone of the late Friday-early Saturday incident on Caroline Street. “On Saturday night, many of those gang members returned and they brought more people with them, and they’ve become emboldened,” he continued. “They literally walked up to our officers, looked them in the face, and said: ‘We’ll be back next week, with more people.’ OK. Let’s be clear about how this is going to go: we are not going to back down.”
Saratoga’s history is littered with stories of mayhem that occurred over more than a century and included gangland shootouts, political payoffs and corruption that generally concluded in the mid-20th century when open illegal gambling in the city came to an end.
In his three-and-a-half decades with the department, Catone said current conditions have provided the most violence he has seen in his career. Statistical evidence will be compiled at summer’s end to provide summer-to-summer comparisons to learn whether there has been an overall uptick in recent times, Dalton said.
“At the end of the day we have to make a commitment to public safety one way or the other, and that comes with a price tag. That’s a community decision about how we’re going to do that,” Catone said. “How do we stop the violence? It’s going to take a community effort of working together. You are either with us, or you are not. If you’re not, then you’re part of the problem.” He called upon local and regional tourism and business agencies to step up.
“When you put 10, 12, 15 officers down there and you have 5,000 people who are in bars drinking all night long – and some of which comes from an element that we quite frankly don’t support being here – 10, 12, 15 officers is not going to fix that problem. So, what do you do? Do you shut the bars down at two o’clock? Do you add another 50 police officers on a Saturday night? The cost of being a destination location carries a price tag with it and this community has to decide what the price tag is…we have to decide, what are we doing? Are we picking safety, or are we going to just be all about the money and then whatever happens, happens,” Catone said.