County leaders said Thursday that Schenectady Mayor Brian U. Stratton should focus on his own police department instead of talking about feasibility studies for a countywide police force.
They also told Stratton to quit talking and start firing officers who break the law.
“My belief is that another study is not what’s called for here,” said county Legislature Chairwoman Susan Savage, D-Niskayuna. “The [public safety] commissioner needs to discipline the officers.”
County Attorney Chris Gardner hammered that point home, using the example of John Lewis, one of the six officers that Stratton has publicly said should be fired.
Gardner noted that Lewis has been arrested five times in the past year, starting last April.
“This case should already be decided, and if I were there, it would be,” he said. “Why hasn’t his [discipline] case gone forward? How about after the second charge? How about after the third charge? The mayor has the authority to act. It’s time for him to quit posturing and take action.”
Both Savage and Gardner made public statements Thursday in response to Stratton’s announcement that the state attorney general’s office would help him find a grant for a feasibility study. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Stratton met for an hour Tuesday to discuss the problems with the city police department and Cuomo offered help with any consolidation plans approved by county residents. Savage and Gardner, who oppose the idea, called a countywide police force “not realistic” and “politically expedient.”
Stratton said a study might show that a countywide force would save money. With proof of that, he believes he could persuade town residents to support the idea.
He said Savage and Gardner were opposing the plan too soon, before any of them have any data.
“We don’t know yet. It harms no one to at least gather the facts,” Stratton said, adding, “Chris and Susan and I are friends, but I have to do what I have to do.”
As for the slow disciplinary process at the department, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said prosecutors have asked him to wait until they complete their criminal cases.
“I’ve been doing this for 41 years. The criminal prosecution is always handled first. The prosecutor doesn’t want to muddy the waters,” he said.
Gardner said that if officers wants to postpone their disciplinary hearing until they resolve their criminal case, the city doesn’t have to pay them.
“You can go forward with the discipline charges. If they’re not ready to go forward, they can go off the payroll. That’s what we do here,” he said.
But Bennett said city officers haven’t agreed to postpone their hearings. He’s postponed them himself to help the prosecutors in those cases.
Bennett and Gardner do agree on one thing — they both believe that arbitrators can be inconsistent in their rulings on police punishment.
Gardner said he has seen some arbitrators uphold termination for DWI — which several city police officers have been charged with — while other arbitrators have said it was too severe of a penalty. But Gardner said the city should try to fire officers even if it’s not sure of success.
“Doing nothing is not an option. DWI is a violation of the law. I’ve seen cases come down on both sides, but that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything. You’re likely to get some sort of penalty,” Gardner said. “You have to try.”
Gardner also offered Thursday to help the city with its ongoing negotiations for a new police contract. For 22 years, Gardner was the attorney for Council 82, which represents employees of many local police departments, including Albany.
But Stratton said Gardner would help the police, not the city, if he were allowed into the negotiations.
“I’m sure that the PBA would love nothing less,” he said.
Gardner said the city would have to pay him for his help, although he offered “informal advice” for free.
“I believe the mayor may not be getting the best advice,” he said.