Clear and Present Danger
The cycle of gun violence in Albany has become a personal crusade for many, while authorities struggle to respond
Published on 4/12/2007 by Metroland written by David King
There was a ringing in Allison Banks’ ears while a doctor at Albany Medical Center tried to inform her that her son Elleek had died of the three gunshot wounds he had sustained earlier that May night, while celebrating his 24th birthday. “I heard something very scrambled,” says Banks. “I could hardly hear his voice. My ears started to plug up. I could hear faintly he was saying that he didn’t make it. I just kept asking him to repeat what he had said that led up to ‘He didn’t make it.’ I kept telling him, ‘That’s not true, that’s not true.’ ”
The ringing might have been left over from earlier that night, when Banks answered the phone to hear her son’s girlfriend screaming in horror. Even before she picked up the receiver, Banks knew it could be nothing but bad news. Only a few weeks before, she had gotten a similar late-night call telling her that her son had been wounded by gunfire. “I jumped with fear,” says Banks. “I said ‘Hello,’ and all I could hear was his girlfriend screaming. I didn’t want to hear it, and I just dropped the phone.”
Elleek Williams’ death was a nightmarish end to a lifetime of struggle. For years Banks had done everything in her power to keep her son away from violent street life in Albany. Despite sending him out-of-state to live with relatives, moving her family to Amsterdam, sending Elleek to live with his grandmother in Colonie, and having him ruled a person in need of supervision, Elleek always returned to Albany and managed to reunite with his friends and find his way back into danger.
Police told the Times Union that Williams knew his killer and that both men were part of a “loosely affiliated” group of criminals.
The man charged with killing Williams, Dushawn Wilson, was out on bail on charges of robbery and illegal possession of a handgun at the time of the shooting. Wilson himself had also been shot earlier that year.
Despite all of Elleek’s talk about an early death, despite all the funerals he had attended for friends, and despite the uptown-downtown feud her son had always told her he couldn’t avoid, Banks had hoped that she could save her son from the streets. She had recently started saving money from the job she worked while attending college so she could give her son enough money to move off of Myrtle Avenue, away from the neighborhood where he told her he was afraid to walk down the streets.
Banks didn’t understand the doctor who was telling her that her son had died of the three gunshot wounds; she didn’t understand why Elleek was still warm to the touch when she sat with him for the last time in that hospital.
But the biggest misunderstanding—the one between Banks and her son while Elleek was alive—finally came to a resolution for Banks that night at Albany Medical Center. “He would always tell me he didn’t like to catch the bus anywhere,” says Banks. He would ask to take a cab or for me to take him places. I would not understand. I would ask, ‘Why do I have to come and get you and bring you from Colonie; why do I have to drive you when you can catch the bus?’ But that’s how deep the fear was.” According to Banks, her son was constantly tormented by his perception that, as someone who grew up in the South End, he would be risking his life to travel into uptown areas of Albany. In the end, it was that uptown-downtown dynamic that likely took Elleek Williams’ life.
Banks’ newfound understanding of the life her son lived, of the fear he felt and of the way he finally died, made her decide that she would not allow Elleek to become just another statistic. That’s why, when the Albany County District Attorney’s office asked her to come to a meeting about introducing a hotline to combat gun violence, she made sure she was there early. But when it was made apparent she was there simply to advise on how to properly inform the community of the hotline, which would offer a $500 reward to anyone providing a confirmed tip that led to an arrest for gun possession, Banks realized just how incremental progress toward changing things on Albany’s streets will be.
Over the past few years, as gun violence has risen in Albany, citizens have increasingly become frightened, angered, and even obsessed with the violence spreading through their neighborhoods. They have become frustrated with the response to the problem by local government, law enforcement, prosecutors and the media. And although officials like to remind citizens that gun violence is a problem plaguing many U.S. cities, these citizens have taken it upon themselves to do what they can in their hometown.
While people who have been affected by gun violence like Banks have asked the city to get more involved in giving kids in the South End and Arbor Hill alternatives to gangs, others, like Dr. Leonard Morgenbesser, have kept a watchful eye on the reporting of gun crimes in the city, questioning whether the Albany Police Department and the media have glossed over the extent of the gun problem. And still others, like Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), have pushed to bridge the gap between communities, law enforcement, and government. And yet, a public response by local officials to the gun- violence issue in Albany has arrived only recently, and has at times been stunted by the negative connotations surrounding the issue.
On April 4, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings had Common Councilman James Scalzo (Ward 10) introduce an ordinance that would replace the old firearms code with code that would require weapons dealers to report gun sales to the chief of police, and require handgun owners to register their weapons with the chief. The proposal was not greeted warmly. Jennings has since said the proposal will be revised.
Critics like Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) insist that the legislation missed the point completely. And according to Assistant District Attorney Frank Calderon, the gun problem Albany faces does not stem from legally purchased firearms. “In my opinion, the bulk of the guns are stolen or purchased down south and transported to the area and sold at a cheaper rate. I don’t see it as a problem of local gun shops.” In fact, out of all 71 gun cases the district attorney’s office prosecuted last year, not one involved a legally registered gun.
Calderon notes that since the guns are getting into Albany through interstate commerce, it is harder for his office to use the approach they have taken in other cases and go after the heads of organizations.
“Those types of cases are investigated by the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], and they have a local office here with agents who work countless hours investigating these cases,” he says. “We rarely are involved in that aspect of it. In our capacity here we tend to deal with the aftereffect of guns in this area that have not been picked off—guns that have made their way into the hands of kids in this city. It’s hard. You are hoping no one is gonna get shot, but as many guys I take off the street, I know there are more guns out there. The fact that I’m seeing a higher volume only leads me to suspect there are just as many guns still out there and in the hands of people who are ready and willing to use them.”
Calderon heads the district attorney’s Operation Speeding Bullet program, which is designed to process offenders who use guns during a crime as fast as possible. Calderon pushes for bail to be denied and moves cases along to be prosecuted with haste to ensure that perpetrators do not get back on the street. But Calderon says his best hope for fighting gun violence as a whole is that the sentences he delivers can scare off other perspective criminals. He says prevention efforts have to come from elsewhere.
So if illegal, unregistered guns are the issue facing Albany, what can Albany do to stop the influx of them into the city?
According to District Attorney David Soares, Calderon, Banks, and Calsolaro, one of the largest problems that exists in fighting gun violence in Albany is the relationship between the communities affected by gun violence and city officials.
“I find people are willing to let bad guys go free to avoid dealing with their associates,” says Calderon. “It becomes a daunting task to convince people justice should be served, that a person who committed a robbery should be prosecuted. I’ve had people here held at gunpoint, and they know the person who did it and they don’t want to testify. It’s pulling teeth. They don’t feel secure that the system will serve them well.”
Although Calderon says he is just the guy who prosecutes crimes as they happen, his boss, Soares, has a number of programs in place to better his office’s relationship with the most affected communities, including his Bring It to the Courts program and his outreach office on Clinton Avenue.
Calsolaro has tried for years to institute a gun-violence task force that would bridge the gap between the community and local government and law-enforcement agencies. In 2004, the Common Council passed a resolution recommending the mayor create a gun-violence task force. It was never done. Last year, Calsolaro introduced an ordinance that would have the Common Council oversee a task force of its own. For about a year, Calsolaro’s proposal has been met with resistance from Albany Police Chief James Tuffey.
“What [Tuffey] said when I met with him was, “We don’t need this. We don’t need another task force. We are doing fine,’ but . . . lots of citizens would like to be involved,” Calsolaro says. “One of the reasons I’ve proposed this is to have a group where citizens have a way to talk about things and feel more comfortable doing it in an open dialogue with the police department. I want a place for people to go with their problems that is a safe place, that isn’t the police or the DA.”
Calsolaro says that he thinks his ordinance, which is currently pending before the Public Safety Committee, is likely to undergo changes that will give it a more positive spin before it is voted on. Tuffey has continually told the Common Council that he meets with all the appropriate organizations, that he knows what is best for the fight against gun violence, and that the council would not achieve anything with a task force.
There is another battle Calsolaro has been fighting regarding gun violence in Albany even longer than he has been trying to initiate a gun-violence taskforce. For seven years, through four police chiefs, Calsolaro has been trying to get specific gun-violence statistics from the APD. “I’ve been trying to get this data since I’ve been on the council through I don’t know how many different chiefs—Nielsen, Wolfgang, Turley—trying to get the updated statistics. I want real statistics: shots fired, robberies. It might just have been a toy gun, but so what? I want to know about it . . . I want a better handle on the gun crime there is in Albany.”
Calsolaro says he was promised he would have the individual gun-crime statistics by April 1. But April 1 came and went and Calsolaro still has no statistics. He says the longer he has waited, the more he has wondered if the city has something to hide.
But more important than that, Calsolaro wonders how the city is supposed to address its gun crime without knowing where and how often it is taking place. “You can’t do anything without data,” says Calsolaro. “How can you form plans if you don’t have data?”
While the APD has moved at a snail’s pace to release specific gun- crime information, Albany resident Morgenbesser has vigilantly cataloged gun-crime incidents reported in the media. He began keeping track of media reports in September 2002, and has touted what seems to be a steady increase in such crime as a reason to utilize his proposed approach to fight it—by making it a public-health issue. The entry for the shooting that took Banks’ son’s life reads like this:
May 15 2006 TV 13 News reports 12:40 AM, Sheridan and Lexington, reports
Of shots fired, APD responds, finds no victims, no perps, later
Receives call from Albany Med of male gunshot victim in surgery
Brought over by car, investigation continuing.
May 16 2006 12:40 AM 24 yr old shot to death by 17 yr old with .22 caliber
Outside bar at Corner of Lexington and Sheridan. Taken to Albany
Pronounce dead 3:30 AM. Victim, perp knew each other, each living
In Colonie (Albany suburb), grew up in Albany
According to Morgenbesser’s reports, there were 411 media-reported incidents of gun crime from September 2002 to April 7, 2007. But Morgenbesser notes that his catalogue is woefully inaccurate, because the media does not report on every gun-crime incident. For 2004, Morgenbesser’s data shows 84 incidents of gun crime, while the APD reported 166 to the Department of Criminal Justice Service. In 2005 Morgenbesser collected 112 incidents, while the APD reported 244.
At the meeting at the district attorney’s office, Banks, joined by rep-resentatives of the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA, and Steven Mollette (who lost his daughter to gun violence), met with Director of Administration Richard Arthur and spokeswoman Heather Orth from the district attorney’s office. They discussed ways to promote the new gun hotline funded by a $32,000 grant through Operation Impact (a state-funded law-enforcement program). But for Banks it was hard to stay focused on that singular solution. Banks quickly moved to talk about larger issues that her son faced, that presumably many young men in Albany face.
Listen to Banks tell the story of how she desperately tried to keep her son off the streets, and it is hard to think that he had much of a chance to avoid becoming a statistic, simply because of the cycle he was born into.
“One summer, my son took a picture with his friends on Third Street,” says Banks. “If you look at that picture right now—it’s at Mugs & More and it’s a group picture—mostly everybody in that group picture is dead. If you look at the picture and talk to the ones that are still alive today, they are fearful that they are gonna be next. Somehow, that picture signifies ‘This is us as a group,’ and this cycle is not gonna change on the street.” In a way, Morgenbesser’s insistence that gun violence is a health issue is illustrated by Banks’ story. As though taken by some creeping plague, Banks has watched her son and the kids he grew up with killed on the streets they grew up on.
And it seems things may even be getting worse—the cycle may be starting earlier. Banks says that she thinks the kids on the street who are firing their guns are getting progressively younger. The teen charged with shooting her 24-year-old son was only 17. According to Banks, when Dushan Wilson (the suspect in her son’s murder) was arrested, he asked one thing: “How did you find me?”
Banks says carrying a gun has become a way for younger kids to establish themselves on the street. According to Calderon, gangs have taken to arming younger individuals because it is harder to prosecute youthful offenders. “We are getting cases at an alarming rate with individuals I find to be very young, and it’s frightening they are in possession of handguns. There has to be a greater outreach, and I know that our office is trying to take those steps to make people aware that it does not pay to be in possession of a firearm, even if you are young.”
Banks first noticed the temptation gang life presented to her son in 1999 while she was living in the South End, when he finished his involvement with Little League. “I think there was no activity for the youth,” she says. “I had always had him involved in the American Little League, but there was not enough going on in the community. The kids are always on the street corners, and it was really scary because then they started to formulate some kind of organization, and there was a real lack of resources in the community.”
As her son started getting in trouble, Banks began trying to help him escape. “Because he grew up downtown, it wasn’t Crips and Bloods and stuff—it was territorial. This is downtown kids, this is uptown kids. And every time I would turn around, Elleek would be going to a funeral for one of his friends. The only thing I could think of is, ‘How do I save my son? I’m sorry about them, but how do I save my son?’ I wasn’t getting involved in going to funerals; instead it was, ‘How do I get my son out of here?’ So I sent him to Philly, but he wanted to come back. Once this started to happen so regular—one life, another life, I felt I can’t take it. I have to move. So I sent him to live at my mother’s house in Colonie.”
When the school told Banks her son needed to be declared a Person in Need of Supervision, she complied. Banks and her husband actually moved the whole family to Amsterdam, where Williams flourished away from the streets of Albany. But her husband decided to move back to Albany for work.
As a young adult back amid the strife of Albany, Banks says, Elleek did his best to succeed. He worked at the Boys & Girls Club, attended Bryant & Stratton and moved into an apartment with his girlfriend on Myrtle Avenue in Albany. His success inspired Banks to return to school herself, and she began attending Bryant & Stratton, as well.
But one afternoon, her world was shattered by a visit to Elleek’s apartment. “I brought his mail down to Myrtle Avenue and he was just really like, ‘Ma, I can’t walk outside. I have to look over my shoulder everywhere I go out!’ I said, “But you’re in school.” He said, “Ma, people are shooting! It’s like the wild wild west. Nobody is doing nothing.” And I’m speechless, ’cause I wanna say, ‘OK, just pack up and come home.’ But he is 23 years old, and he is not coming home.”
Banks is sitting at a table, surrounded by walls of law texts in the district-attorney’s office. She explains that one hotline with a reward for $500 for turning in someone with a gun will not fix the problems that led to her son’s death. She insists programs involving opportunities for kids are needed, that parents need to get involved and be forced to understand what kind of life their kids live on the streets. Banks is reminded that this meeting is simply about the hotline and how to effectively promote it.
It is agreed that Banks’ story would be affecting, that stories of siblings and parents left behind by those killed by gun violence might shock possible offenders into attention. But still, Banks and the other community members gathered would rather focus on bigger community initiatives.
Then DA’s office spokeswoman Orth asks Banks, “If you knew that you could save your son by calling this hotline, if there was a hotline back then when your son was getting in trouble, would you have called it?” Other community members quickly respond for Banks, saying, “Parents are never gonna do that. They are never going to send their children to jail.” Banks puts her head down. Seemingly defeated, she looks up and acknowledges, “I’d rather have him in jail than dead.” But she isn’t finished; she composes herself, looks across the table directly at the representatives of the district attorney’s office and asks, “Could you do that to your child?”