Schenectady County

Schenectady mayor pushes police changes

Of the eight police officers that Mayor Brian U. Stratton said he wanted to fire, two are now gone.

Of the eight police officers that Mayor Brian U. Stratton said he wanted to fire, two are now gone. And after a two-year wait, he now has confidence that he will soon be able to punish or terminate the rest.

But he has not abandoned his controversial plan to get rid of the department and replace it with a countywide or consolidated agency.

“It’s still on the table,” he said. “I’m not giving up.”

He said he’ll pursue the idea no matter how well the department performs.

“Even if we had the most untarnished and professional police department in the world, there would still be reason to look at the operational efficiencies, for the taxpayers of Schenectady,” he said. “We’re going to continue to explore every option to make this department the best.”

The city is also pursuing an appeal on its disciplinary measures, trying to win court approval to let the public safety commissioner punish officers himself.

Not only would that system be faster, but it would cost the city far less. Schenectady paid Officer John Lewis $100,693 to stay home from work for nearly two years while city officials tried to figure out how to discipline him. He was finally fired Monday.

The total cost of all eight disciplinary cases is expected to exceed $1 million.

But it would have been more if Lewis had not been arrested six times after he was suspended. Each time he was arrested or indicted on criminal charges, his pay was docked for a month — the maximum allowed in the police contract.

Those suspensions happened so often that Lewis received his weekly salary just eight times between Dec. 17 and April 12. He was not being paid when he was fired.

That loss of pay will also hurt his pension. Despite being fired, he can still draw his full pension — but because he did not put in 20 years of service, he won’t get it until his 62nd birthday, according to the state comptroller’s office.

He could also take a partial pension when he turns 55, the comptroller’s office said.

The pension will be based on his last salary. Since he could not work overtime and lost several months of pay, that pension will not reflect his normal pay.

City officials said they will never know how much it cost to fire Lewis. The city spent $34,600 on his judge and $236,000 for the lawyers hired to prosecute him, but that pay also covered their work in five other police disciplinary cases.

Since the judge and the attorneys do not submit separate bills for each officer, the cost of prosecuting Lewis alone cannot be determined, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.

Paying all of the officers to stay home has cost the city $545,300 so far.

More than half of that — $300,000 — was spent while city officials tried to find quick and inexpensive ways to discipline them. But the police union opposed any method that did not involve calling in arbitrators. They took the case to the Public Employment Relations Board, which has still not ruled on the issue. Then the union took it to Judge Barry Kramer, who ruled against the city. Van Norden is filing an appeal.

He expects the final cost of the disciplinary cases to exceed $1 million. And that’s not counting the cost of the court cases on how to discipline the officers.

Still, Stratton noted that Lewis did provide the impetus for two significant changes in policy at the Police Department.

There are now “severe consequences” whenever police turn off their video cameras, Stratton said.

“And there’s an intolerance to the in-your-face insubordination Mr. Lewis so often gave his superior officers,” Stratton added.

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