Escalating what has become an ongoing feud, the Johnstown Police Benevolent Association has lodged a new series of grievances against Police Chief Greg Horning, angered at him for — among other things — removing a satellite radio from the union president’s patrol car and ordering officers to start patrolling immediately at the start of their shift.
JPBA President Adam Schwabrow says the chief knew about the Sirius radio and permitted it until the JPBA filed its first improper practice charge against Horning in February, alleging he violated their contract by ordering them not to use their cellphones or other personal items while on duty.
“I had it for two years and it was OK,” Schwabrow said of the radio. “It was never a problem until we filed the first improper practice. Three days after that I received an e-mail from him ordering me to remove [the Sirius radio] from my vehicle.”
Schwabrow said the “take-home” vehicle previously afforded him as the city’s canine officer has also been taken away, even though prior canine officers had been given the use of the vehicle for personal purposes.
The police union and the city of Johnstown have gone through a New York state Public Employee Relations Board mediation conference over the cellphone issue but it hasn’t been resolved. The two sides are waiting for a court date with an administrative law judge.
The union and the city are scheduled July 8 to begin a new conference for improper practice charges the union has filed alleging Horning retaliated against Schwabrow and others after the union filed the first charge over the cellphone dispute.
Horning confirmed he ordered the Sirius radio removed from Schwabrow’s vehicle. When asked whether he thought it was proper for police officers to have such devices he shook his head and said he wished he could comment but he shouldn’t because of the pending PERB conference over the issue.
“They feel that they were wronged and they’ll have their day at PERB and we’ll let an arbitrator decide what’s going on,” he said.
In papers filed with PERB, the police officers state that on March 3 Horning began retaliating against the union by screaming verbal threats and claiming that he was going to make them “pay” for “making him look bad.” Johnstown police officers Christopher Stevens, Thomas Oare and John Rodriguez claim to have witnessed Horning engage in a profanity-laced tirade against the union.
The JPBA alleges that in the first week of March, Horning initiated a crackdown on the police, including removing a cabinet and stovetop from the police break room and ordering police officers on the 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. shift to begin patrols promptly at 6:30 p.m., when in the past they weren’t expected to begin patrol until 6:40 p.m. or after. According to the union, Horning told officers they weren’t “going to be sucking down coffee” at the police station anymore, “that the Club-Med atmosphere was going to change” and that the “days of the old Johnstown Police Department are gone and they are never coming back.”
The union describes Horning’s 6:30 p.m. rule as a restriction of the police officers’ “free time” and a violation of their contract.
The union also alleges Horning threatened to break the union financially by fighting every charge and that he told police officers the department was going to be eliminated through consolidation with another municipality and he didn’t “give an [expletive] who leaves this place.”
Horning described the issues as internal housekeeping. He wouldn’t comment on the statements the union claims he made.
Schwabrow said his union was already financially broken by last year’s arbitration battle with the city over a new contract, but the union isn’t worried about legal fees anymore. He said fighting the city over the size of salary raises — the union wanted 8 percent but a PERB arbitration panel gave them 3.5 percent instead — cost the union $50,000 because it paid its attorney by the hour. On Dec. 5, the JPBA voted to affiliate itself with the New York State Union of Police Associations. The move doubled union dues from $7 a week to about $15 a week, but eliminated any per diem cost for hiring attorneys to file actions against the city.
“We send about $12.50 per member a week to NYSUPA and now it doesn’t cost us anything for attorneys. It’s free,” he said.
Mayor Sarah Slingerland said she was aware of the improper practice charges, but has been advised not to comment on the issue by City Attorney Susan Palmer Johnson. She would not comment on whether her administration supports Horning’s actions or whether she thinks it was improper for a police officer to have a Sirius radio in his patrol car.
“We will be in compliance with all regulations,” Slingerland said.
Johnstown Councilman-at-large Bryan Marcucci said he thinks Horning made the right move taking away the Sirius radio.
“[Schwabrow] absolutely should not have that radio. We couldn’t even have regular radios in our UPS trucks [when I worked there]. What’s a policeman got to have that for,” Marcucci said. “I stand by Greg. He wouldn’t do anything unless he felt justified. I don’t believe he’s holding a vendetta. I don’t believe they should have cellphones either. They sit in a parking area, like they’re going to stop somebody, and talk on their cellphones for an hour.”