The city is returning reluctantly to the old system of disciplining police officers in hopes of finally being able to fire the seven officers who are being paid for every day that their hearings are delayed.
The last two times the city tried to use the old system to fire officers, the terminations were overturned and the city was forced to rehire the officers. But a decision by Judge Barry Kramer gave the city no choice but to try that system again, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.
The city’s only other option is to keep the officers out, with pay, for up to a year in hopes that Kramer’s decision would be reversed on appeal. The city is appealing to the state Appellate Division.
In the meantime, Officer John Lewis and six others will face discipline under the old system, in which a hearing officer holds a private trial and then recommends a disciplinary action.
The mayor, who appoints the hearing officer, decides whether to follow the recommendation. Once discipline is handed out, the police union can appeal the discipline to an arbitrator, who makes the final determination. The arbitrator’s decision cannot be overruled by the mayor.
It was at that point, in the past, that Lewis was reinstated after being fired for using a racial slur. He successfully argued that he used the n-word as casual slang, not as a derogatory way to describe the black city worker who was nearby when the word was uttered. He is now facing termination again after being arrested five times last year, accused of mistreating his wife during an acrimonious divorce and driving drunk.
Van Norden is not eager to return to the system that once reinstated Lewis and other fired officers. But, he said, he wants to try to get the seven suspended officers off the payroll as soon as possible.
“We are very conscious of the cost to the taxpayers,” he said.
The two officers who have been suspended the longest have cost the city $200,000 in salary while they stayed home from work, according to city payroll records. The others have all cost the city at least several months of pay.
The man hearing the police cases will be Jeff Selchick, the arbitrator who last fall decided that the Police Department should receive two consecutive 4 percent raises without any give-backs to the city.
The mayor could have chosen anyone to hear the police cases, including Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, but chose one of the few people that the police union agrees is acceptable in matters of police review.
Van Norden said the choice was strategic, designed to ensure that another arbitrator would not overturn the disciplinary decision when it is appealed.
“We are confident he is the least likely to be reversed by one of his colleagues,” Van Norden said. “He’s very, very highly respected in New York state.”
Selchick is also known for making “very detailed and precise” reports cataloguing all relevant arguments used to reach his decision, Van Norden said.
That skill could prove invaluable if any of his recommendations are appealed by the police union because the final arbitrator would rely on Selchick’s report to make a decision. Although both sides can submit an additional brief for the appeal, they usually do not re-argue the case before the final arbitrator, Van Norden said.
However, arbitrators make a substantial portion of their living by determining police contracts, and they can only get those jobs if the municipality and the police union do not object to them. City officials have argued that the system makes arbitrators somewhat beholden to police unions.
Van Norden and Bennett have also said in the past that arbitrators do not have the experience and institutional knowledge needed to understand how to discipline police. And Bennett has said that arbitrators set such varying levels of discipline for the same offense that discipline ends up being ineffective because other officers are not sure what punishment they would face for the offense.
But Van Norden said Wednesday that Selchick can do the job.
“We are confident he has the ability to make decisions on discipline,” Van Norden said.
Selchick is a very busy arbitrator but will have time for at least one hearing in August, Van Norden said. He is expected to hear the first four cases — involving Lewis, Darren Lawrence, Gregory Hafensteiner and Andrew Karaskiewicz — in the next few months, Van Norden said.
Van Norden had no timeline for when Selchick’s recommendations would be made.
OFFICERS FACING DISCIPLINE
* John Lewis, accused of DWI and alcohol-fueled disputes with his ex-wife while off-duty
* Darren Lawrence, accused of DWI and misuse of alcohol while off-duty
* Andrew Karaskiewicz, accused of beating a suspect
* Gregory Hafensteiner, accused of beating the same suspect
* Dwayne Johnson, accused of leaving work four hours early on several occasions
* Michael Brown, accused of DWI and leaving the scene of an accident while off-duty
* Kyle Hunter, accused of violating an order of protection, misusing sick time and losing his service revolver
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