Disciplinary hearings for city police officers charged with various offenses are scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
Two officers who have been on paid leave for more than eight months will face the accusations against them in open court for what may be the first time in Schenectady history.
The decision was not made easily. Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett announced two years ago that he would openly try officers under a new Court of Appeals decision. But the threat of public discipline motivated nearly every officer to confess to misdeeds without going to trial, Bennett said. The only way they could avoid the possibility of public humiliation was to accept his discipline and waive all rights to an appeal.
For the past year, a few officers have flirted with the idea of a trial — but none followed through until officer Darren Lawrence called Bennett’s bluff this spring.
Bennett immediately announced that the long-promised public hearings would be closed, to avoid lawsuits from officers demanding privacy.
Then officer John Lewis also insisted on a trial, and both were about to go forward when the city postponed the hearings in order to hire private attorneys to prosecute.
The new hearings were originally going to be private, but three weeks ago the city agreed to make them public. At the time, city officials said they expected the police union to sue — which would allow a judge to decide the thorny issue of public versus private courts.
Contrary to expectations, the Police Benevolent Association had not filed a suit by Friday, city officials said. They expect the hearings to go on, as scheduled, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
Lewis will be tried Tuesday and Wednesday, beginning at 9 a.m. in the courtroom at City Hall. Lawrence will be tried Friday at 9 a.m. in the same location.
Any portions of the hearings that involve discussion of the officers’ previous disciplinary record will be closed to the public.
Lewis and Lawrence both face termination. Bennett will make that decision after each trial.
Lewis, who was arrested five times in the past year, will answer charges that he allegedly threatened to kill his ex-wife and any man she was seen with, harassed her and smashed property. According to arrest papers, he had a number of alcohol-fueled disputes related to his deteriorating marriage, which ended last year. In December, he was also charged with DWI.
The case that brings Lawrence to court is less clear. Lawrence is accused of drunken driving, crashing a vehicle and then beating his passenger in an attempt to keep the incident secret in October 2006. But he was suspended and then allowed to return to work after that incident, which indicates that he has already received his discipline in that case.
More recently, he was accused of off-duty misbehavior that forced officers to remove him from a bar in October 2008. The details of that incident were never made public and it appears that he was not arrested, but he has been on suspension since then.
Five other officers are also expected to face public trials, although none of those hearing dates have been set and in most cases, the officers have not yet been handed formal charges.
The officers are: Kyle Hunter, accused of misusing sick leave, attacking his girlfriend, stealing her car, and losing his gun, all on separate dates; Michael Brown, accused of driving drunk and fleeing the scene of an accident; Andrew Karaskiewicz and Gregory Hafensteiner , accused of beating a drunk suspect; and Dwayne Johnson, who parked his patrol car outside an apartment and vanished for hours on several successive Tuesdays when he was supposed to be on patrol. Each officer faces termination.