Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden is stuck with an almost impossible task this week: keeping the details of the Officer John Lewis report from becoming public before the mayor makes his decision Monday.
He has spoken at length with each person who has a copy of the report, emphasizing that they must keep it secret. He even restricted the number of people who could read it — and won’t let a single City Council member look at it.
All this for a task he doesn’t even want to accomplish.
“This is an injunction by Judge [Barry] Kramer,” he said. “It was our preference, it still is our preference, to be transparent.”
Only eight people, including Hearing Officer Jeffrey M. Selchick, have access to the report. In it, Selchick details exactly what Lewis did wrong — if anything — and what punishment he should get.
But even Selchick wouldn’t break Van Norden’s vow of secrecy — although Van Norden admitted that he had to have a long conversation with the independent judge to make sure he wouldn’t spill the beans.
Selchick said he was disappointed by the news, joking that he was sorry his 85-page report would have such a limited audience.
“I did a huge undertaking. I’ve done an exhaustive analysis,” he said.
Van Norden said that even after the mayor announces whether he will fire Lewis, the report cannot be made public.
But even if it is only read by a handful of city officials, the report may have tremendous ramifications.
Selchick said he went far beyond simply judging whether Lewis should be fired.
“I articulated what needs to be articulated to restore integrity in the department,” he said.
He did not call for specific policies to be changed or created, he said.
“But I made observations,” he said. “What we’re striving for here is not just the right thing for Mr. Lewis but the right thing for the department.”
He declined to say what the “right thing” for Lewis was, but said his report focused on the fact that all of Lewis’ alleged misdeeds occurred when he was off-duty.
“I talk about the high standards expected for police on and off duty,” he said. “You take an oath to uphold the law. How an officer views the law in his or her personal life says a great deal about how he or she views it on-duty.”
His overall message, he said, is that no one is above the law. The same message will be used to judge the other Schenectady officers on his docket. “I’m nothing if not consistent. What I say here will apply to the next several officers as well,” he said.
He expects to release his report on Gregory Hafensteiner in about a month, followed by the report on Andrew Karaskiewicz. They are accused of beating a suspect after arresting him.
Lewis is accused of driving drunk, having alcohol-fueled arguments with his ex-wife, stalking her, threatening to kill her and any man he found her with and a variety of other anger and alcohol-related incidents.
His attorney has argued that Lewis was treated more strictly than the typical city resident, to the point where police would go out of their way to find excuses to arrest him.
But three police officers have also been criticized for giving Lewis preferential treatment — two for driving him home one night instead of doing sobriety and Breathalyzer tests after an accident and one for allowing Lewis to drive himself home after an alleged DWI accident.
Selchick said he carefully combed through testimony and evidence before deciding what happened. “I’m very confident that my findings are correct,” he said. “It’s going to be very hard to quarrel with what I found.”
Van Norden acknowledged that Kramer did not specifically bar the city from releasing Selchick’s report. Kramer did say that the officers’ hearings must be held privately. “But he then went off on this whole transparency issue,” Van Norden said. “I’m not going to let the city go in any direction that might encompass the judge’s injunction. I don’t want the city being held in contempt.”
However, he told his staff to speed up its efforts to write an appeal, which has been in the works for months. It should be filed by Monday, Van Norden said.