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Drop the cops? Not so fast: Closing department not an easy fix

Drop the cops? Not so fast: Closing department not an easy fix

The city can rip up its police union contract, shutter police headquarters and give away the departm

The city can rip up its police union contract, shutter police headquarters and give away the department’s budget — but it can’t get rid of the officers.

The officers who have worked for the department the longest — the ones that city leaders say have created a “culture of unprofessionalism” — would have to be the first hired by any new policing agency created for Schenectady, according to the state Department of Civil Service.

That’s troubling news for Mayor Brian U. Stratton, who threatened to close down the department if officers continue to behave poorly.

For years, off-duty officers have popped up in headlines for driving drunk, beating up women who refused their advances and intimidating those who witnessed their illegal behavior.

On-duty, other officers have been disciplined for claiming to be at work while actually relaxing in an apartment, at a gym, in a restaurant and at a bowling alley.

Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said some of the officers on the force were not qualified for their positions but were mistakenly hired after inadequate background checks.

Stratton has argued that union contract restrictions make it nearly impossible for him to fire such officers. He’s hoping that he could broker a deal in which only the “good apples,” which he says are a majority of the force, would transfer to the city’s new police force. He doesn’t want to taint that force with the bad apples who have earned such a reputation in the Schenectady Police Department.

But state Department of Civil Service spokesman David Ernst said there’s no question that the most senior officers would get the first chance to work for the new agency.

“That’s pretty cut-and-dried,” he said after reading the Civil Service Law.

However, abolishing the police department would allow the city to accomplish one of its goals: kill the union’s labor contract, which officials have blamed for being overly generous with sick time, compensatory time and union time while restricting disciplinary options. Negotiations over those issues have failed repeatedly.

That contract would be eliminated if the city abolishes its department and contracts with another agency, according to officials at the Public Employment Relations Board. The officers transferred to the new agency would work under that agency’s existing contract, they said.

strength in numbers

The move would make the new agency’s union more powerful, warned Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer.

“If you’re a larger agency, you usually have a more powerful PBA,” he said.

But he argued that a consolidated department like his — which covers five large towns on Long Island with a force of 2,700 officers — is worth it because it is more efficient, saves money through buying in bulk and can offer better technology and training than small town departments.

Other merged departments say communication is highly improved.

Before the Las Vegas police merged with the Clark County sheriff’s department in 1973, “professional jealousy” kept city and county detectives from sharing information in their competition for arrests, Capt. Larry Ketzenberger said in a speech praising the merger.

Many municipalities in Florida that merged police operations reported savings. But elsewhere, some municipalities have found that costs rose after a merger. Chatham County, Ga., will shoulder a 38 percent cost hike — from $10.8 million in 2007 to $14.9 million in 2011 — as part of its recent police merger with the city of Savannah. (The city pays $43 million annually for police.)

The city would have a hard fight if it tried to follow the lead of other municipalities that developed a countywide police force or merged with the local sheriff’s department. County Attorney Chris Gardner said he would vehemently oppose a merger with the sheriff’s department, and town leaders were less than enthusiastic about a countywide force.

state police option

The city does have a third option: It could call in the state police.

But the city would need to convince the state Legislature to amend a state law first.

The state police say the only impediment for them is a lack of manpower. They’d need money — and at least half a year of training time — to prepare to police Schenectady.

Legally, the state Legislature would also have to approve the deal. The state police can assist city police, as they do through Project Impact in Schenectady, but they couldn’t patrol if there were no local police in the city, they said.

They are limited by state executive law, which currently states that only towns and villages can hire the state police.

That law could be changed, but Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito said it may not be easy.

Destito is chairwoman of the Governmental Operations Committee, which would first consider the change if Schenectady proposed it.

“I think it would be a dramatic change in law,” she said. “What would prevent every city from wanting the state police?”

To avoid that, the state Legislature could pass a law allowing only Schenectady to contract with the state police — similar to the law that allowed only Schenectady to sell its tax liens during a financial crisis.

Destito had no comment on whether she would support a limited change in the law.

She noted that the city could not get the service for free. The executive law governing the state police requires it to set a price that includes not only the cost of every officer sent to the area but also maintenance and benefits.

City Police Chief Mark Chaires calculated that if the city were to hire 157 state troopers at their salary rate, which is significantly higher than the city’s, it would cost $3 million more than the city spends now. Schenectady’s 2009 police budget is $16 million.

“They’d be too expensive,” Chaires said. “Their captains are $112,000 — ours are $77,000.”

He said the city police predict lower salaries and lesser benefits if they go to the county Sheriff’s Department. The best officers will leave for other police forces before being forced to lose pay, Chaires said.

county opposition

Gardner said the county would oppose any consolidation.

“The idea that you’re going to do away with all the problems by creating a new entity is kind of silly,” he said. “You have a lot of good police officers who are doing good work. I think Bennett and Chaires are both inclined to deal with problems head-on. Management does have the tools to deal with it.”

He said the city must simply be patient.

“When there are issues, if they’re fully investigated, even if the officer didn’t do anything wrong, they know they’re being monitored on a regular basis. As that gets inculcated into the culture, I think it will be good,” he said.

The city could also try to create a countywide police department, but town supervisors offered lukewarm support.

Niskayuna Supervisor Joe Landry said he would follow the county’s lead on any discussion of a countywide police force.

“We’ll defer to the county, to whatever the city and the county work out,” he said.

Glenville Supervisor Frank Quinn said he would consider the idea — if it were cheaper than the town’s department.

“I think it’s worth putting on the table and discussing the pros and cons,” he said.

He readily acknowledged that communities might oppose the change because they would see it as a loss of individual identity.

“That will be an issue,” he said. “But in the same breath, given the concern people have for their taxes, it’s certainly worth looking at.”

Rotterdam Supervisor Steve Tommasone added that his residents would worry that their officers — and their tax money — would be sent to Schenectady.

“I would be opposed to a countywide police department,” he said. “Our town residents are very happy overall with the performance of our town police department ... and I believe they would never support it.”

Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden plans to give the city council a preliminary analysis for all three options at the April 6 committee meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. in Room 110 at City Hall.

His report will include the cost of paying off all of the officers, many of whom have been saving up overtime pay for years. He also plans to include his estimated cost to defend any lawsuits.

And just to make sure that he covers all of the bases, he said his list of options would include the possibility of asking the governor to cut through the red tape by simply declaring martial law.

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