Subscriber login

Local News
What you need to know for 03/23/2017

Tide turns in Schenectady’s favor, against corrupt cops

Tide turns in Schenectady’s favor, against corrupt cops

For years, it seemed the only thing Schenectady officials could do was suspend police officers who d

For years, it seemed the only thing Schenectady officials could do was suspend police officers who drove drunk, abused their wives, slept on the job or mistreated suspects.

Every officer they tried to fire was reinstated. It got to the point where they said they didn’t think it was possible to get rid of them.

But with Dwayne Johnson’s resignation from the force as part of a plea deal Wednesday, the city has gotten rid of eight police officers this year, including one who agreed to leave within weeks of being suspended last month.

The city has now won all but one case, and it’s not giving up — the only officer to be reinstated by an arbitrator this year has been brought up on further charges and will face another termination hearing Monday.

It is an effort that began with years of complaints from observant residents who reported on officers’ misdeeds — including residents who told The Daily Gazette that Johnson was regularly parking his patrol car outside an apartment complex all night when he was supposed to be patrolling the city.

That report led to a full-scale investigation by police and the district attorney’s office, uncovering evidence that Johnson was not only sleeping on the job but also occasionally working as a private security guard at a Hess gas station during his police shifts.

Other cases began at the jail, where guards started documenting every city arrestee who arrived with injuries that might have come from police beatings. Their information helped lead to two officers being charged with beating a suspect.

The district attorney’s office and the police department added their own investigators to the mix and this year began pressing charges against officers for both off- and on-duty actions. In the past, the district attorney’s office had only prosecuted officers for felonies, but police began arresting their own on charges of DWI, domestic abuse and other misdemeanors.

Those cases proved to be the fastest way to remove officers from the force, usually through plea deals.

GPS, cameras in cars

After a Daily Gazette report two years ago documented an officer leaving the city for hours every Saturday to watch his son bowl, the city installed GPS units that record where every patrol car goes.

Those units, combined with the cameras and microphones already in the police cars, provided critical evidence in several cases — including one in which a rookie officer turned his mic off and drove home an off-duty officer who may have been driving while intoxicated. The officer, John Lewis, was later fired, and the rookie left the department when he was threatened with termination.

After the cameras and mics were mysteriously reported as nonfunctional during several cases of possible officer misconduct, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett told officers they would be punished every time their equipment stopped recording unless they immediately reported the problem via radio.

Still, city officials worried that all of the evidence in the world wouldn’t allow them to fire a police officer.

Until this year, the current administration’s only effort to fire a police officer had failed miserably. Kenneth Hill, an officer who had been fired for calling a black man a “monkey,” was reinstated by an arbitrator. Mayor Brian U. Stratton’s predecessor had fired Hill, but Stratton took on the fight, refusing to let Hill back in after the arbitrator reinstated the officer. Hill took his case to a state judge, who ordered Stratton to put Hill back on the job.

At the last minute, as Hill was starting his first day on patrol, the district attorney’s office put together enough evidence to charge Hill with a felony. Hill later pleaded guilty to selling a stolen gun to a drug dealer.

Officers convicted of a felony automatically lose their job.

The experience with Hill and John Lewis, who was fired in 1998 and reinstated by another arbitrator, convinced city officials that no arbitrator would recommend termination. So they tried everything else they could think of in these past two years, from digging out a Court of Appeals case involving New York City police discipline to threatening the police union with publicity of every officer’s misdeeds if they didn’t accept punishment.

None of it worked. Officers sat on paid suspension for more than a year while their union found increasingly technical arguments to block the city’s efforts to fire them.

Turning point

Last summer, after exhausting every other option, the city reluctantly went back to arbitration.

But all of that work created an environment in which arbitrators could fire officers, an outside observer said.

“This has become an open scandal. The conduct has been outrageous,” said a former judge, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s so notorious that bias toward the union has abated. That’s why you have a complete turnaround in these cases.”

He said that until now, the city was right to worry that arbitrators would not normally fire officers. Police unions throughout the state will stop hiring the arbitrator if he or she rules too aggressively against officers, the judge said. Municipal officials, on the other hand, seem willing to support arbitrators who lean slightly toward the union, on the theory that the next arbitrator could be worse.

“It becomes pretty natural for the arbitrators to lean at least marginally toward the union,” the judge said.

But Schenectady became so well known for having a corrupt police force that arbitrators no longer feared that they would be blacklisted in other parts of the state if they ruled against the police here, he said.

Stratton’s support

The two-year fight that created that atmosphere required not only Bennett’s complete focus but the mayor’s constant support.

Bennett said, “Without that support, none of this progression into tighter accountability would have occurred.” He said Stratton met with him before hiring him and told him, “We’ve got to clean this up.”

Bennett said, “The Curtis case was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

He referred to the case in which Detective Jeffrey Curtis became addicted to crack cocaine and stole 85 pieces of the drug from the police department’s evidence safe. Curtis compromised evidence in more than a dozen cases with his thefts. He pleaded guilty within months and is now serving a four-year prison sentence.

But investigating and firing other officers who committed less scandalous misdeeds took years. It also cost the city well more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees and salaries for the suspended officers, whose contract requires the city to pay them after their first 30 days of suspension.

Stratton took criticism for the ever-increasing cost. But he told Bennett to keep going.

“If he says to you, ‘We’re not going to pursue this,’ you’re dead in the water because it takes money,” Bennett said. “He never said that. He supported me every waking minute.”

Stratton said he never considered the false starts and roadblocks — or the huge price tag — to be a reason to quit trying to fire what he has called the department’s bad apples.

“If you fail, you just keep trying,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’ve done here. We tried everything else. So we went to Plan B. We’re going to stick with it. The public is extremely pleased.”

He credited Bennett with starting the fight by citing a Court of Appeals case that granted New York City’s police commissioner the right to discipline officers himself.

Bennett only knew about the case because it peripherally affected the state police, which he ran at the time. When he came to Schenectady, he argued that he should have the same power as New York City’s commissioner, firing officers as he saw fit.

The idea did not hold up in court for Schenectady. But Bennett said he never would have started the fight if he hadn’t heard of the idea.

“The only thing we would have been able to do was negotiate with the union to eliminate … arbitration,” he said.

Others have tried that repeatedly, to no avail.

So Bennett instead took the legal route. After losing the commissioner-discipline fight, he tried to hold public disciplinary hearings.

The union blocked that, taking the city to court to stop it.

One arbitrator

In the end, the union agreed to one concession: All discipline could be decided by one arbitrator, rather than a revolving door of people, each with their own ideas of discipline.

Bennett felt sticking to one arbitrator would at least lead to consistent discipline — but the cases would still be decided by an outsider who might never get another job if he ruled against the police officers.

“I felt we had enough evidence to support our cases,” he said, but he added that he never imagined they’d win all of them: “I was hoping for a majority of them.”

A police union official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he expected that the arbitrator would fire Officer John Lewis. But he thought others — particularly Gregory Hafensteiner and Andrew Karaskiewicz, accused of beating a handcuffed man — would stay on the force.

The union and the city agreed to let Jeffrey Selchick hear all of the cases. He was well-known to both sides, having recently ruled against the city in the latest contract negotiation with the police. He ruled that the city should give the officers 4 percent raises for two years without receiving any concessions.

After that decision, some union officials thought he was the perfect person to hear police discipline cases. But city officials said Selchick’s reputation as a top arbitrator in the state would be invaluable if they could convince him to support firing anyone. Selchick’s decisions have never been overturned on appeal, and city officials said they were certain fired officers would try to appeal.

Officially, Selchick’s title for the cases was hearing officer; another arbitrator would hear the cases on appeal, if any case got that far.

Getting the ball rolling

The string of decisions began this spring. From March to August, seven of the eight officers on the mayor’s termination list were pushed out of the police force. Two others left so quickly that their termination hearings were never scheduled.

The easiest case was at the very beginning. Kyle Hunter was charged with stealing his girlfriend’s car, violating an order of protection against her and harassing her. Before Selchick could even start his disciplinary hearing, Hunter got a plea deal — the charges would be reduced to a misdemeanor if he would resign from the force. He quit.

That was a relief for the city: It meant that Hunter could never be reinstated. There is no possible appeal when the officer agrees to resign.

But they had seven more cases to go.

Selchick began with the Lewis case, in which the officer was accused of harassing and threatening his ex-wife in alcohol-fueled rages, driving drunk and a variety of similar offenses.

It took Selchick nearly two months to come to a decision. Then he sent an exhaustive report to Stratton, an 85-page legal analysis to defend two words: Fire him.

Lewis immediately declared that he would appeal. But in his criminal cases — on the same charges as his disciplinary case — he faced several felonies. He pleaded guilty to one, forever removing himself from the police ranks.

Resignation strategy

Next up was Gregory Hafensteiner, accused of kicking a handcuffed man in the head as he sat in the back of a patrol car. The car video recorded the entire incident. Selchick’s decision was quick: Get rid of him.

But unlike the Lewis case, Stratton did not sign the termination papers at once. City officials called Hafensteiner and warned him that he was about to be fired. They asked him to resign instead, which would give him the slim chance to get a police job elsewhere but would also allow the city to be rid of him forever.

Hafensteiner resigned a day before Stratton was going to fire him. City officials trumpeted the news: three down and not a single one in doubt. So far, not one appeal was possible.

Two weeks later, they reached the halfway point. Sherri Barnes retired a day before a jury convicted her of misusing prescription drugs. She used her police phone to contact her supplier more than 2,600 times and once flashed her badge to get a pharmacist to hurry up, according to prosecutors.

Barnes gave up the fight to keep her job moments after the prosecution’s closing statements.

Four down.

Then came the hardest case: Andrew Karaskiewicz, accused of beating the same handcuffed man that Hafensteiner kicked in the head. But the alleged beating took place outside the police car, out of the car camera’s range. Although the man can be heard crying out more than 15 times, in response to sounds consistent with blows, he ended up with just bruises. The district attorney’s office brought the case to a grand jury but did not win an indictment on assault charges.

Selchick didn’t need to worry about whether the man’s injuries were serious enough to meet the legal definition of criminal assault. He decided Karaskiewicz had at the very least used “unnecessary and excessive force” and should be fired.

Stratton’s team urged Karaskiewicz to resign. He refused. Stratton fired him.

Setbacks

For the first time, the city had a termination that it would have to defend on appeal.

This was followed by another loss: Selchick reinstated officer Darren Lawrence, who had been placed on the mayor’s termination list for getting into an off-duty bar brawl. Police said he fought officers who responded to the bar and then ran away and was found hiding under a car.

Selchick said the misdeed wasn’t severe enough to warrant firing. But city officials recovered quickly, charging Lawrence with another alcohol-related off-duty incident, in which he allegedly drove drunk, crashed and beat a passenger to prevent the incident from being reported.

City officials said the incident was far more serious than the bar brawl and should easily support the city’s contention that Lawrence should be fired.

That hearing will be held Monday, with a second day of testimony slated for Sept. 20 if needed.

City officials are confident that Selchick will recommend firing Lawrence because he told the city to get rid of another officer who drove drunk.

In Selchick’s last hearing, he said officer Michael Brown should be fired for driving drunk and causing an accident in an off-duty incident. Brown drove a short distance away from the scene but allegedly returned to help the injured driver of the car he hit. Police charged him with DWI and leaving the scene of an accident. He pleaded guilty to both charges.

When Selchick came to his decision, Brown agreed to resign rather than being fired.

Fraud case

That left the city with just one officer awaiting his first hearing: Dwayne Johnson.

He faced 15 counts, including four felonies: defrauding the government, grand larceny and two counts of offering a false instrument for filing. The last two counts refer to his police time card.

He also faced 11 misdemeanors: five counts of official misconduct, five counts of receiving unlawful gratuities and one count of scheming to defraud.

All of the charges alleged that Johnson was double-dipping, working as a private security guard during his city work shifts. The allegations that he was also sleeping on the job were not brought up in court because that isn’t illegal, although it could be grounds for firing him.

The district attorney’s office prepared for a torturous, two-week trial involving an intricate series of financial documents to prove that Johnson was supposed to be working for the city when he was actually guarding a Hess gas station.

But at the last minute, three days before the jury was to convene, Johnson agreed to deal: He said he would resign from the force in exchange for pleading to just one misdemeanor.

That was all Carney wanted.

“From the beginning, the most important thing was to separate him from the police department,” Carney said after Johnson pleaded guilty Wednesday.

His office has spent an inordinate amount of time on misdemeanor police cases this year, he said, when he would rather focus on serious, violent crimes.

“But I understand the appropriateness of separation,” he said. “I want to help the police department get past these problems.”

Until the department’s corrupt officers are removed, he said, administrators must spend most of their time investigating officers and enforcing rules instead of watching crime trends and redirecting the department in response.

Moving on

City officials hope they can move forward by the end of September, when Lawrence’s discipline may be determined.

But even if they must reinstate Lawrence, city officials acknowledged that they have had unprecedented success.

It has come as a “pleasant surprise,” as City Council President Gary McCarthy put it.

However, it’s not the end.

“This is a never-ending story,” Stratton said. “Don’t think we’re out of the woods yet just because we’ve gotten rid of seven, eight, nine ‘bad’ cops. We haven’t necessarily solved the underlying problem. You have to instill proper training and proper leadership.”

View Comments
Hide Comments
You have 0 articles 1 articles 2 articles 3 articles 4 articles 5 articles 6 articles 7 articles remaining of Daily Gazette free premium content.

You have reached your monthly premium content limit.

Continue to enjoy Daily Gazette premium content by becoming a subscriber.
Already a subscriber? Log In