The city police disciplinary hearings will be open to the public after all, the city has decided.
Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden changed his earlier recommendation to close the proceedings, saying that the public should be able to watch the hearings of six officers who face termination. Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett officially agreed with the new recommendation Wednesday.
“The idea is, transparency is a good thing,” Van Norden said. “It’s something the public needs. If I’m hearing people correctly, they’re upset that they don’t know what’s going on. We have to be aware of and respect the interests of the people who, ultimately, are responsible for their police.”
Three of the six officers who face hearings are accused of misbehaving off-duty while drunk. Two others are accused of beating a suspect, who has sued them. The sixth faces charges of leaving his post four hours early on several occasions. The officers are John Lewis, who faces a hearing June 23-24; Darren Lawrence, who faces a hearing on June 26; and four others whose hearing dates have not yet been set — Michael Brown, Andrew Karaskiewicz, Gregory Hafensteiner and Dwayne Johnson.
The hearings may be closed for short times during testimony if officers’ prior disciplinary records are entered into evidence, Van Norden said. But he added that he plans to keep those closures as brief as possible and may only close the hearings if the records must be discussed in testimony. Otherwise, they could be introduced without being read aloud.
The state Court of Appeals ruled in 1999 that the disciplinary records of active police officers can be kept secret to preserve the officers’ reputations and ability to enforce the law.
That decision has led to an unusual situation with the hearings — the public can observe the proceedings but may not get to learn the results. Any written discipline meted out by Bennett must be kept secret.
“If the commissioner articulates his decision in an oral statement, you can hear it,” Van Norden said. “If he writes it, I don’t think you can.”
laws in conflict
The emphasis on secrecy for public employee discipline since the passage of the Taylor Law in 1967 led Van Norden to initially recommend closed hearings. But the section of the Second Class Cities Law that allows Bennett to personally hold discipline hearings says they must be public.
“The statute is very clear. The statute says the hearing is public, end of story,” Van Norden said. “The question is, what do you do with 40 years of the Taylor Law? We’re walking an untrod path. We’re on the edge.”
The ground is so uncertain that Van Norden is actually hoping to be sued on the issue. He expects the Police Benevolent Association to sue on behalf of its officers and ask a judge to keep the hearings secret.
“If someone sues us, it would result in a judge making a decision. That would be very helpful to us,” Van Norden said. “We want the courts to decide this. That’s ideally what we need.”
A judge’s decision — either for or against public hearings — could help the city avoid “reversible error,” in which Bennett’s decision is overturned on technicalities.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton wants to avoid that at all costs.
“The most important thing is that it’s irrevocable. Whether that takes place all in public concerns me less,” he said.
But he added that the PBA has no reason to sue.
“The goal is not to humiliate or ostracize [the officers]. It’s to get at the facts as concisely and quickly as possible,” Stratton said. “If they’ve got nothing to hide, if they want to get their side out there, tell their story, they should be totally compliant.”
PBA President Robert Hamilton did not return a call seeking comment.