Schenectady County

Cost of Schenectady cops’ discipline nears $1M

The cost of trying to fire four city police officers could soon reach $1 million.

The cost of trying to fire four city police officers could soon reach $1 million.

The city already has spent $790,000, with one-third of that spent on attorneys to prosecute five officers. And that’s before the city begins its effort to fire two others who face criminal charges.

“There are other costs. Transcriptions [of the hearings] are very expensive,” Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said. “There may very well be appeals.”

In all, he said, it’s likely the effort will hit the $1 million mark.

The biggest new cost is the legal expenses for Girvin & Ferlazzo, the law firm that handled the prosecution.

For the disciplinary hearings held last November and December, Girvin & Ferlazzo was paid $235,814, according to records released in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Some of the hearings went on for more than a week, and all of them required extensive pre-hearing research by the law firm’s expert on municipal labor contract disputes, James Girvin.

Hearings have been held for police officers John Lewis, Darren Lawrence, Gregory Hafensteiner, Andrew Karaskiewicz and Sherri Barnes. Two others, officers Dwayne Johnson and Michael Brown, have cases pending in criminal court. The eighth officer accused of misdeeds, Kyle Hunter, recently agreed to resign and plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

Those officers have been paid roughly a total of $8,800 a week while they await their hearings. At this point, the total is $520,000.

More than half of that — $300,000 — was spent while the city tried to find a quick and relatively inexpensive way to discipline them, but every option was rejected by the state and the courts.

Under the format now required for this matter, the city must also pay the man hired to judge the hearings. So far, hearing officer Jeffrey M. Selchick has been paid $34,597, according to city records. That fee covers both his time during the hearings and the months he has now spent reviewing legal precedents, considering every piece of evidence offered in the cases, and writing his recommendations.

His first recommendations will be released early next month.

As the costs mount, city officials said they are increasingly frustrated by the expense — especially because they are trying to cut $13 million to avoid massive layoffs.

“I could have done this far less expensively and far quicker,” said Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, who had originally intended to run the disciplinary hearings himself. The police union went to court to stop him; the city is now appealing that decision.

But in the meantime, city officials decided to begin the more expensive process rather than continue paying the officers to stay home.

“We knew it was going to be expensive, and unfortunately we don’t have any say in the matter,” Bennett said. “I’m as outraged as the public is. It’s a sad situation.”

Still, he thinks the effort has had an effect. His officers are now certain that he will hold them to a high standard because he has refused to agree to lesser punishments proposed by the police union, he said.

“We had a very small minority of people intimidating and defining conduct for the others,” Bennett said. “If you resolve these cases by essentially plea-bargaining them with the union, that invited trouble because the person on the fence thinks: well, what’s the worst that can happen?”

He thinks the suspensions have helped the rest of the force distance themselves from their colleagues’ misdeeds.

“It’s allowed the people here to finally recognize we had some problems here that were tainting all of them,” Bennett said.

Suspending the accused officers also allowed the rest of the department to tell the public that they were trying to clean up the force.

“You can either do something about it, or you can avoid the problem and it will continue to haunt you,” Bennett said.

But a suspension is not a termination. The officers remain on the payroll — and able, at any time, to be returned to the force if the mayor determines they don’t deserve to be fired.

After Selchick makes his written recommendations for each officer, the mayor will make the final decision. He is expected to concur with Selchick, who has never been overturned on appeal.

The city hired Selchick in hopes of being able to successfully fire its officers. Since any terminations are expected to be appealed, city officials believe Selchick’s record and legal reputation will help them defend his recommendations.

But those very qualities will badly hamper the city if Selchick does not recommend termination and the mayor decides to fire the officers anyway. Under that scenario, city officials would be forced to prove in court that Selchick — the very man they believe is unassailable — was wrong.

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