A newly proposed piece of legislation in the state Senate could bar law enforcement agencies from hiring officers who’ve left or were fired from previous agencies.
The legislation, released May 3, came just days after the Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino fired his stepson Daniel Coppola following a driving while intoxicated arrest in Colonie on April 26.
A Manhattan Democrat, State Sen. Brian Benjamin originated the proposal: “I believe police officers should be held to a higher standard because the nature of their power is so great,” he said.
Coppola was arrested after his car was observed swerving and nearly hitting a traffic pole, Colonie police said.
Two days after Coppola’s arrest, Dagostino fired his stepson for violating the department’s code of conduct. That code prohibits officers from drinking alcohol while off duty to the extent that the officer would not be fit to report for duty at any time of the day and engaging in misconduct or actions that bring discredit to the agency.
The decision to fire his stepson was something Dagostino had pledged to do, if necessary, back in 2018 after hiring Coppola following his departure from the Schenectady Police Department. After he was arrested in 2018, Coppola eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of driving while ability impaired.
Coppola’s firing follows a string of hirings, firings and resignations at the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department in recent years with both deputies and corrections officers alike. Here are some of the more notable instances:
Issues in the sheriff’s department
In the last three years, officers have left the department for a slew of reasons. Some recognized cases include:
- Jail officer Eugene Sellie was fired in November 2020 after the guard allegedly beat an inmate at the county jail so severely it required the detainee to be placed on a ventilator.
- In fall 2018, Vincent Stone was fired following assault charges in Rotterdam. He had been hired in March 2018 three years after resigning from the Rotterdam Police Department following a 2014 domestic-related assault arrest in Schenectady.
- Ex-jail guard David Garhartt was charged with three felonies related to a state police drug investigation in spring 2018 and four other corrections officers resigned after there was evidence they used drugs. Garhartt had previously been terminated in 2011 before being rehired and then let go again in 2015.
The proposed bill in the New York state Senate would deny officers the ability to be hired at other departments if they were fired from another department in or outside of the state; left a department while under investigation or while they were the subject of a disciplinary action that could potentially end with termination, or if the officer resigned while criminal charges were pending from actions the officer committed while on duty.
“If you have a bad barber, they don’t cut your hair well — it’s bad, but your hair can grow back, you can figure it out,” Benjamin said. “Bad police, the consequences are far greater. “
He said officers who fall into those three areas of the bill have shown they are unfit for the job, especially those who are fired because cops are rarely fired.
“When you’re fired by your own police force that’s usually a sign you should be doing something else,” Benjamin said.
He doesn’t expect opposition to the bill either.
“I foresee some grimacing, but I don’t foresee opposition because the premise is too hard to fight,” he said.
Sen. Robert Jackson of the 31st District is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Phil Ramos is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly. Benjamin said it’s important that he has Ramos’ support because he is a retired cop from Long Island.
Support for hiring process
Dagostino has said in the past he likes to offer officers a second chance at his department, with the knowledge that if they act inappropriately they will face disciplinary action.
Undersheriff James Barrett said the hiring process for those just coming off the civil service exam and those transferring in are almost the same. The one difference is new hires are subject to a polygraph test, whereas transfers are not because the officer would’ve taken one at their previous employer. Otherwise, a background check is conducted, a physical and two oral interviews.
Dagostino could not be reached for further comment on the hiring process.
The county Legislature, which oversees the department, said no concerns have been raised regarding the hiring of officers over the years or the sheriff’s handling of instances such as Coppola’s.
“Sheriff Dagostino is an independently elected constitutional officer directly answerable to the residents of Schenectady County,” said Erin Roberts, the county’s director of public communication. “That being said, the Sheriff handled this situation exactly as he has previously handled similar situations with other officers.”
Legislature Chairman Anthony Jasenski Sr., Public Safety and Firefighting Committee Chairman Thomas Constantine and County Attorney Chris Gardner said the county supports the sheriff’s actions.
“I think the fact that he took a difficult situation and took action he deemed to be appropriate assures the county Legislature the sheriff is willing to take difficult actions even though it might be personally troubling for him to do so,” Gardner said.
The Division of Criminal Justice Services is also working on new regulations to standardize the hiring and training process.
Other new standards coming
In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Professional Policing Act which would require agencies to enforce new hiring standards within two years, said Kirstan Conley, the deputy director of public information for the Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The act also strengthened the decertification process for officers, meaning come Oct. 16, the commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services will have the ability to permanently revoke the training certificate of any officer who has been fired for cause.
“Permanent revocation means an individual could no longer work as a police officer in New York State,” Conley said.
There will also be new minimum hiring standards that will be established by the Municipal Police Training Council.
“The MPTC will propose regulations for mandatory minimum hiring standards to include: criminal history check; medical, physical and mental health examinations; and a background check to determine good moral character,” Conley said.
Law enforcement agencies will be given a certificate of compliance for enforcing the minimum hiring standard by the Law Enforcement Agency Accreditation Council. Those agencies will also have reporting requirements to the Attorney General’s Office and the Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Next for Coppola
As for Coppola, he is expected back in court on June 14.
According to the county, his union “filed an appeal immediately upon the termination. Any questions regarding the appeal should be directed to Ennio Corsi, general counsel of Council 82, the New York State Law Enforcement Officers’ Union.” Repeated calls there were not returned.
The grievance process involves a neutral arbitrator who is chosen to oversee a hearing in which the county would have to demonstrate the decision to fire Coppola was the right thing to do, Gardner said.
Gardner said he expects the defendant’s counsel would argue either a case for innocence or for mitigating circumstances. Evidence would be presented at the hearing and each side would file briefs before the arbitrator makes the ultimate decision.
If the arbitrator finds there was no misconduct, there is a chance the officer would get their job back.
Gardner said the hearing would normally take place after any criminal charges were dealt with.