Schenectady County

City cop suspended after DWI arrest

A city police sergeant who crashed his car twice and was charged with drunken driving Sunday in Beth

A city police sergeant who crashed his car twice and was charged with drunken driving Sunday in Bethlehem has been suspended without pay and faces termination, authorities said.

Sgt. William Fennell was arrested late Sunday afternoon, accused of driving while intoxicated, leaving the scene of an accident and refusing a breath test, Bethlehem Police said.

Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy said that when he learned of the allegations, he directed that Fennell be suspended without pay.

The suspension is to last 30 days, McCarthy said. But it could effectively last longer if Fennell loses his driver’s license over the breath test refusal, because without a license he cannot work as a city police officer and as such will not be paid.

“The fact pattern brings embarrassment on the department,” McCarthy said. “We want our officers to be viewed as community leaders. We will not tolerate this type of behavior.”

McCarthy said Fennell may be fired from the department.

Fennell, 39, of Selkirk, was one of three officers to open fire in August on a man police said had a gun. Fennell and two other officers fired a total of 14 shots, killing Luis Rivera, 33. Authorities have said the shooting appeared to be justified under department policies.

Fennell is an 11-year veteran of the force.

Bethlehem police were first alerted to Fennell on Sunday by an employee at KT’s Barnside Eatery on Route 9W.

Fennell had come in around 3:45 p.m. to pick up an order and appeared intoxicated, Bethlehem Police Lt. Thomas Heffernan said.

The Bethlehem officer responding to that call then witnessed the first accident, as Fennell rear-ended a car at the intersection of routes 9W and 396, Heffernan said, only a few hundred yards from the restaurant.

The officer also watched as Fennell backed up, drove around the vehicle he’d just rear-ended and fled west down Route 396.

The officer checked on the other driver and then took off after Fennell. He soon found Fennell on Beaver Dam Road, where his car had crashed into a tree.

Fennell was arrested at the scene. He later refused to take a breath test at the Bethlehem police station, Heffernan said. Fennell faces possible loss of his driver’s license, pending a state Department of Motor Vehicle hearing on not taking the breath test.

The driver of the other vehicle was not injured, and damage to that car was described as minor.

Fennell is due back in Town Court on Dec. 6.

As a result of the arrest, an internal investigation was launched by the Schenectady Police Department’s office of professional standards.

Fennell is the second officer this year to be charged with driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident. In January, Officer Jonathan Haigh was arrested for allegedly driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident, accused of smashing into a tree and fleeing.

Haigh’s criminal case remains pending. He was, however, allowed to return to work in May under a last-chance agreement, meaning if he was ever found guilty of certain types of misconduct again, he would be terminated.

A key detail is that Haigh submitted to a breath test within the allotted two-hour window after his arrest.

Last year the city also fired officer John Lewis, who was twice charged with DWI among half-a-dozen charges related to alcohol abuse and domestic violence. The first DWI charge fell apart because police rookies drove Lewis home instead of asking him to take a breath test after he crashed into a parked car, leaving them with no evidence to support the charge.

Problems with that case led police to change their policies regarding the collection of evidence when officers face arrest. The department also disciplined at least one supervisor and threatened to discipline both rookies. They chose to leave the department instead.

In another case, from March 2009, city police officer Michael R. Brown was accused of driving drunk and leaving the scene of an accident. Brown was also accused of refusing a breath test.

Brown later pleaded guilty to both charges and a hearing officer ruled he should be fired. Brown chose to resign instead.

It was Brown’s case that helped change department policy from a past practice of allowing officers to work a desk job if they lost their driver’s license. Brown sat home getting pay, but without a driver’s license, after he pleaded guilty to DWI.

Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said in June 2010 that the policy had been changed. An officer without a driver’s license, unable to go on patrol, would sit home without pay.

Fennell’s arrest came nearly three months after the Rivera shooting.

Fennell was the first officer on the scene for a report of a man with a gun. He saw Rivera first, crossing State Street near Grove Place around 4:30 p.m. Aug. 12. And he saw the gun, in Rivera’s right pocket — exactly where the caller said it was, authorities have said.

Fennell pulled next to Rivera, quickly got out of his patrol car and grabbed Rivera by the shirt. Rivera, though, broke away. Police also said he pulled up his shirt and thrust his hand into his pocket.

Two backup officers arrived, Fennell shouted to them Rivera had a gun and shouted at Rivera to get down. Police said after three shouts to get down, Rivera stepped away, turned and motioned at officers with his gun. All three officers fired.

Fennell had also twice been recognized for subduing armed men without killing them, even after they pointed guns at him.

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