The mayor has had enough.
After yet another embarrassment Wednesday, in which a police supervisor had his teeth cleaned while he was supposed to be working, Mayor Brian U. Stratton warned every officer that the Schenectady Police Department’s days may be numbered.
“This is a critical moment for the Schenectady Police Department,” he said at meetings with each patrol shift. “If this department is going to survive, it’s going to take the work of every officer.”
He urged them to work their full shifts without taking unapproved breaks for dentist appointments, bowling tournaments and three-hour visits to private apartments — three of the latest incidents in the long list of police work-ethic failings.
He also urged officers to keep their colleagues on the straight and narrow.
“They need to know we’re at a critical moment. I asked for their help,” Stratton said after meeting with the morning and afternoon shifts at 4 p.m.
“Sooner or later, if these things continue, it’s going to become impossible for them to do their jobs.”
The city could abolish the department and call in state police or contract with the county sheriff’s department, as suggested in a Daily Gazette editorial Wednesday. Stratton said he was moved by the editorial, which he praised.
He said he scheduled the police meetings after reading the editorial and then learning that daytime patrol supervisor Sgt. Eric Clifford had his teeth cleaned while on duty Wednesday. Another dental patient saw Clifford walk in just after 10 a.m. for an appointment and then use his radio to report that he was “on detail.”
The phrase is used to indicate that the officer can’t respond to calls but is working — possibly filing paperwork or going to the bathroom. It cannot be used for personal errands, including dental work, Chief Mark Chaires said.
The dental patient called The Daily Gazette to report the matter. A reporter then observed Clifford, who hurried to his patrol car after his cleaning. Chaires said once Clifford knew he had been observed, he reported his errand to his lieutenant. The lieutenant told Clifford that he would have to give up his lunch hour to make up the time he spent at the dentist, Dr. Kenneth Schwartz.
The situation was particularly disturbing, Stratton said, because supervisors had been told just last week to strictly enforce rules banning all personal errands during the workday.
That policy change came in the wake of officer Dwayne Johnson’s suspension for spending hours in an apartment each week when he was supposed to be patrolling.
Both Stratton and Chaires said then that they suspected supervisors knew about Johnson’s absences. They began investigating the possibility of collusion among supervisors to allow routine absences. Chaires also changed several policies to force supervisors to keep track of their officers and emphasized that officers must work their entire eight-hour shifts.
Yet Clifford seemed to believe that he could get paid to spend 45 minutes at a dentist, Chaires said.
“There seems to be a little confusion,” the chief said. “The purpose of a ‘detail’ is to let someone know you’re going to be tied up. There’s meal detail where we bring meals to the jail, for example. But it is absolutely not to be used for personal errands.”
The only personal activity that can take place on detail is a bathroom break, Chaires said. He found himself writing yet another policy Wednesday to make it clear that officers can’t go to the dentist on the taxpayers’ dime.
“We’re definitely clarifying that,” Chaires said. He also wrote a new policy listing the activities that can take place during a lunch hour. Officers have said they run personal errands, sleep and visit friends instead of eating.
But they are only allowed to eat, or work out at the department’s in-house gym.
“We’re going to clarify that up, as far as what’s acceptable on your lunch hour. You can’t leave the city. You can’t run errands,” Chaires said. “Even on your lunch, if something happens, you can be called out. We want to make sure whatever they do will allow them to be called out. You can’t be at the dentist. What if something happens and you’re under novocaine?”
Stratton has not yet researched options for abolishing the police department, but his comments Wednesday are far stronger than ever before. In the past, he has refused to entertain the possibility of abolishment. On Wednesday, he said he’s down to hope.
“If we can do a better job with supervision, I think we can survive this,” he said, emphasizing the word “think.”
“Things are not going to change overnight, but the repeated discipline, continued scrutiny … I don’t know what the options are, but my instinct is to believe that this is a storm we can get through.”
He paused. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel,” he said, then added, “Let’s take it day by day.”