Five city police officers may soon be fired as Mayor Brian U. Stratton struggles to take control of the troubled Police Department.
Stratton said three officers caught allegedly driving drunk while off-duty may be terminated, as well as two officers involved in the alleged beating of an intoxicated man two years ago. The first disciplinary case will be decided next month.
“We’re obviously looking at the strongest possible reaction, internally, to send a message that this is not tolerable,” Stratton said. “I think the T-word is going to be more and more used.”
He said terminations might eliminate enough “bad apples” to change the balance of power in the department.
“My hope is that we can get the good officers in the department to be the overriding factor,” he said.
Surprisingly, most of the officers on his list are relatively new to the department. With the exception of officer John Lewis, a 15-year veteran who was fired from the department once before, all have served less than nine years.
City officials have previously said that the department’s “culture of unprofessionalism” was created by veteran officers and passed down to rookies. Stratton has repeatedly asked the newest officers to resist corruption and change the department.
Firing five officers at once would be unprecedented at the Schenectady Police Department. In the past 25 years, the city has tried to fire only three officers — and succeeded in only one case. On Sept. 2, 1982, after a yearlong investigation and numerous legal battles, the city fired 25-year veteran officer Ambrose Mountain for raping a woman in the city lockup.
Since then, the city twice tried to fire officers who used racial slurs, but in both cases arbitrators said the punishment was too severe.
It’s not clear whether arbitrators would view drunken driving as worthy of termination, but Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett hopes he won’t have to ask them.
He has claimed the right to hold hearings and discipline officers, who would then have only one recourse for appeal. They would have to convince the state Appellate Division to reconsider their case.
Bennett thinks that the city could have fired other officers, but chose to allow retirements, resignations or lighter punishments out of a belief that arbitrators would always overturn disciplinary decisions.
“It got to the point of, ‘We’re not going to bother to take him to arbitration, we’re just not going to terminate him,” Bennett said. “You’ve had 25, 30 years of apathy.”
On Thursday, Bennett was planning to buck that trend with his first ever official disciplinary hearing, regarding officer Darren Lawrence’s off-duty drunken driving allegations.
But that case has now been postponed for a month so that an outside law firm can research the case and prosecute Lawrence while the city attorneys serve as Bennett’s legal advisers.
“It became more and more apparent that he would need legal counsel,” Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said of Bennett. Ethically, his office cannot perform both functions at once — there would be a perception that the legal adviser would favor the prosecution.
The outside law firm will handle all five hearings, Van Norden said. A cost has not yet been determined.
When the hearing convenes next month, Lawrence will respond to allegations that he drove drunk, crashed in Colonie and beat a friend to keep him from reporting the incident. Colonie police collected statements from bartenders and witnesses at a variety of bars who testified to his drinking, but because he fled the scene they could not test him that night to determine his blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident. He was not charged with DWI in that incident.
Lawrence was suspended at the time, October of 2006. He was suspended again last October after an off-duty incident in which officers allegedly had to remove him from a city bar.
Van Norden said Lawrence will have a difficult time claiming innocence in the second case because he made injudicious statements to the officers at the bar.
“The mics recorded a lot of it,” Van Norden said, referring to microphones worn by all patroling officers.
While three of the five officers who face termination have been accused of driving drunk, Bennett said he would not automatically fire officers charged with DWI. A case in point: He demoted Sgt. Joseph A. Peters IV, 42, a 10-year veteran, after he was arrested on Dec. 11 on charges of driving drunk. Peters was sent back to patrol and was removed from the SWAT Team, which Stratton said was a reasonable punishment. He noted that unlike the other pending cases, Peters did not cause an accident, did not refuse a Breathalyzer test and did not flee. He was stopped by city police after a passerby saw his vehicle swerving.
As for the questions of Lawrence’s drunkenness in the October 2006 incident, Bennett said he can determine whether Lawrence was drunk even though the officer evaded a Breathalyzer test.
“I must establish proven guilt to a reasonable satisfaction. It’s not the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bennett said.
He added that officers will be held accountable not only for breaking the law, but also for hurting the Police Department’s already damaged reputation.
A city police regulation bans “anything that lends to the increased discredit of the agency.”
“The troubles of this agency were not a secret to the people who work in it,” he said. “If anything, it should bring them to a heightened sense of awareness, not a diminished sense.”