For five months, the city has been paying an officer who was ineligible to work.
Now “past practice” is forcing the city to keep paying Officer Michael Brown, who lost his license in February after pleading guilty to DWI and won’t be able to get it back until after Sept. 15.
But city officials don’t plan to pay anyone else who can’t work. The next police officer whose license is revoked will sit at home without pay until the license is restored, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said.
Brown has been on paid suspension for the DWI since April 2009, and may be terminated. If he is not fired before Sept. 15, the city will pay him more than $38,000 for the eight months in which he was legally barred from working.
Bennett learned about Brown’s DWI plea on Monday. But his next step — which was to stop paying Brown — was blocked.
Chief Mark Chaires told him that years ago an officer who lost his license was allowed to take an indoors-only job until he got his license back. The union could use that deal to argue that Brown should get paid as well.
“I’ve told the chief that’s not acceptable,” Bennett said. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to tell your employer to make accommodations for your own misconduct.”
Jay Girvin, the city’s special attorney for police disciplinary matters, is now preparing a statement to revoke that “past practice.” He will announce that from now on, all officers must have a valid license. Those who lose their license won’t necessarily lose their job, but they won’t get paid until they get their license back.
“Henceforth, anyone who does not have a license to drive does not meet the job requirements,” Bennett said. “The city has a right to tell the other side, effective a certain date, we’re reasserting our rights under the contract.”
Bennett is also unhappy with a decision made nearly four years ago by former Chief Michael N. Geraci Sr.
When officer Darren Lawrence was involved in an off-duty crash in Colonie in 2006, Geraci agreed to wait on disciplinary charges while the Albany County District Attorney’s Office pressed criminal charges. That agreement may have sunk the city’s case to fire Lawrence. City attorneys did not present any evidence from the incident, in which Lawrence was accused of driving drunk, crashing his girlfriend’s car, beating his injured passenger to stop him from reporting the accident, and then fleeing the scene on foot before police could arrive with a Breathalyzer test.
Because police could not test his breath, they did not charge him with DWI. Instead he was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and harassment in connection to the fight with his passenger.
Lawrence served a 30-day unpaid suspension and then returned to work while the criminal case worked its way through the system. But his case was repeatedly adjourned and has still not been resolved. His latest hearing date is tonight.
In 2008, after officers had to drag Lawrence out of a bar brawl, Mayor Brian U. Stratton tried to have him fired. But at a closed-door hearing, the city only presented evidence from the bar brawl. The earlier incident was never discussed.
Now the hearing officer has recommended that Lawrence’s original 30-day suspension was enough punishment for a bar brawl, sources said.
Stratton is signalling that he may fire Lawrence anyway, saying that the alleged DWI incident is “still weighing heavily on my mind.”
“I am the mayor and I have to make the final call on whether any officer is fit to serve,” Stratton said. “I’m not necessarily bound by what [the hearing officer] recommends.”
Bennett said he would have presented the alleged DWI case to the hearing officer.
“Would I have preferred that? Yes,” he said, adding that the Police Department had agreed to wait until the DA’s office finished its prosecution.
“Those decisions were made by [Chief] Geraci,” he said. “In retrospect, I think it’s lingered long enough that there was sufficient opportunity to conclude this in Colonie [Town] Court.”
He said that the DA’s office wanted the Police Department to wait because presenting all of its evidence at a disciplinary hearing would put it at a disadvantage when the matter came to court.
“You don’t want to jeopardize the criminal case,” Bennett explained, before adding that he thought a four-year delay was unacceptable.
He suggested that Lawrence asked for adjournments to avoid being disciplined by the Police Department.
“Had he been convicted in Colonie court, it would have strengthened the administrative case,” Bennett said.