HUDSON–Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka was joined by other top law enforcement officials in the county this week in an effort to reassure the public in the wake of several shootings in the City of Hudson.
He spoke to members of the Hudson Rotary Club and the press Monday, August 28 just a few blocks away from the site of a series of what police believe are a string of related shooting incidents since May, including the alleged murder of Kevin Whitening, 31, last week. Two other adults and two toddlers, ages two and three, were also struck by bullets but survived.
“I can’t exaggerate how scary that is,” said Mr. Czajka, who was joined at the meeting by Hudson Police Chief L. Edward Moore, county Sheriff David Bartlett and State Police Lt. Eugene Hallenbeck. But the DA offered a statistical picture of crime in the county as a whole that showed the overall crime rate has dropped over the last four years and convictions for violent crimes have gone up.
He also said law enforcement agencies “getting closer” to solving the Hudson shootings, although he said it would take time to make resolve the case. He also called the cooperation between his office and the various police agencies “unprecedented.”
As for a motive, he said, “Many of the incidents arise from the heroin epidemic.”
Chief Moore described the suspects as “local associations that don’t like each other.” Rather than call the two sides in the shootings members of well known criminal gangs, the chief called them “modified gang associates,” though he conceded that the crimes “probably also involve gangs.”
Responding to a question from Rotary Club member Michael Howard, who represents criminal defendants as a public defender, Chief Moore said that between the two sides in the lethal dispute, “There are grievances that go back years.”
The district attorney said that the first time he was elected in the 1980s, the cost to purchase the drugs to sustain a heroin habit required was as much as $500 a day. But now, he said, it’s only a fraction of that cost for the drug. The introduction of the synthetic and much more powerful opioid called fentanyl has lowered the cost to just a few dollars a day. “It’s so much cheaper and so much more available today,” he said.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat what’s going on,” Mr. Czajka added, but overall crime is going down. Using a PowerPoint presentation to support that conclusion, the DA offered data for the years 2012 to 2016 showing a steep decline the combined eight categories of crimes in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics: murder and non-negligent homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny-theft and arson. Countywide, those crimes, referred to as index crimes, dropped from 1,425 to 803 during the five years that ended last year.
Violent crimes, which are a small percentage of all index crimes, were down less, but did decrease to 97 last year.
The DA’s graphs also showed that the rate of convictions in violent felony cases was over 80% in Columbia County, which is 25% higher than the rate statewide. Convictions on the “top charge” in the county were also much higher than the statewide figures.
As for what to do to address the opioid epidemic, Mr. Czajka said, “There’s no silver bullet.” He said when he had come into office, “I thought we could incarcerate our way out of this.” Now he no longer believes that and he cited county records he had found that contained statements from law enforcement officers in the 1920s and 1930s who boldly and mistakenly announced that their arrests of suspects had ended drug problems in the county.
He reminded the his audience that heroin and opioids don’t originate in the county, and that heroin comes from Afghanistan and Latin America, among other places. They’re here, he said, because of the federal government’s failure to keep them out.
Sheriff Bartlett, whose duties include operating the County Jail as well as the Road Patrol deputies and Sheriff’s Office investigators spoke briefly about programs at the jail to prevent drug users from relapsing once they are released. Among the programs he listed were counseling at the jail by Twin Counties Mental Health Services and making available on a voluntary basis the drug Vivitrol, which can reduce or block the effect of heroin and opioids.
He also addressed the heath threat that fentanyl poses to police and responders if they are exposed even to small quantities in the air.
The sheriff said that his office has set a priority: “We aren’t going after users,” and using a number of different approaches to stop the flow of drugs into the county.
When Rotary member Greg Fingar asked a question about the impact the shootings in Hudson might have on responsible gun owners, the district attorney replied: “None of the people involved in these incidents has a gun license.”