It’s hard to know what to think about the three Schenectady police officers charged by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo with “official misconduct” after a grand jury proceeding. At first glance it looks like a ridiculous case of overkill. Why prosecute officers for simple rule violations — all three for failing to fill out a “Use of Force” form, and one for not turning on a camera in his car during and immediately after an arrest?
The answer is that prosecutors often charge people they suspect of committing a crime, but can’t prove it, with whatever they’ve got them on. And in this case, the rule violations were not minor or incidental, but central to an alleged case of police brutality — indeed, a possible attempt to hide it.
It’s also important to keep in mind the context — i.e, the recent embarrassing record of the Schenectady Police Department, which has seen 11 officers arrested in the last nine years, with six of them going to prison. There have, as well, been a number of successful lawsuits by citizens claiming brutality or mistreatment. And a U.S. Justice Department investigation found civil rights violations. Mayor Brian Stratton and Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett want to clean up the union-dominated department, which for too long has been basically running itself, and Cuomo wants to help them.
Police work can be difficult and dangerous, with cops required to deal with nasty, sometimes violent people and to make quick decisions under pressure. Generally we don’t think they should be prosecuted for mistakes made in these situations — which is not to say they shouldn’t be punished with strong disciplinary action, including dismissal, if the mistake and/or consequences are serious enough. Bennett’s assumption of disciplinary authority last year, which the union is challenging in court, is a key to getting control over the department, and Schenectadians should hope the court doesn’t take it away.
Because the grand jury proceedings are secret, we don’t know what went on there or what evidence was looked at. We do know the jurors didn’t see enough to justify an indictment for assault, as alleged by the arrestee, Donald Randolph.
But we also know they didn’t see timely “Use of Force” forms the department requires officers to fill out or a video from that one officer’s car — the whole purpose of which is to protect not only citizens from police abuse but the department against phony claims of it. If they had, they might have had a clear enough picture to either charge the officers with brutality or definitively clear them.
One could have seen the grand jury issuing a report that said, “We don’t find enough to prosecute here; this is an internal matter.” And Bennett has promised to go ahead with disciplinary hearings regardless of what comes of Cuomo’s misdemeanor charge — as he should.
But whatever the outcome, the external look at the department that Stratton and Bennett initiated is a welcome sign that they won’t tolerate the old way of doing things. The police have now heard from outside as well as inside that there will be real consequences for not following the rules, especially ones which go to the heart of their work. That’s good.