The Johnstown Police Benevolent Association has agreed to withdraw its improper practice charge against the city and Police Chief Greg Horning for allegedly creating a hostile work environment. But the union has reserved the right to refile it if Horning returns from suspension to head the department.
Horning has been on paid administrative leave since September for undisclosed reasons. The police union had filed two improper practice charges with the New York Public Employment Relations Board against the city and Horning. The first was based on Horning’s order to ban the use of personal cellphones by police officers while on duty. The second was based on allegations Horning retaliated against the union after the cellphone dispute was publicized.
Acting Johnstown Police Chief Mark Gifford said the cellphone improper practice charge has been resolved because he decided to lift the ban, provided officers only use them for police business.
“Police officers in my department can carry cellphones while on duty. The reason being there are many times when police work is done on these cellphones. If I think somebody is abusing the cellphone in reference to personal business, then I have the ability to subpoena cellphone records and I can prove that,” he said. “There are many times when there is quite a bit of traffic on the police channels, the radios, and it becomes much easier to talk person to person on the cellphones.”
Gifford’s decision reverses his initial decision to maintain Horning’s ban, after being named acting chief. He said the use of text messaging and surfing the Internet while driving are still prohibited.
JPBA President Adam Schwabrow said his union is glad Gifford has lifted the cellphone ban. He said his union had wanted a resolution to Horning’s suspension before agreeing to drop the hostile work environment improper practice charge, but decided to compromise.
“Mayor [Sarah Slingerland] and [Gifford] wanted to get these resolved and my position had been we didn’t want to resolve these until there was a resolution with the chief, because why resolve these and have him come back to work and be right back to where we were,” he said. “It was our attorney that made the suggestion that we would withdraw as long as they didn’t have a problem with us reserving the right to file again if the chief comes back to work. Because we don’t know what the status of the chief is. He could be back tomorrow for all I know.”
Slingerland said she can’t comment on Horning’s status and she said she didn’t know how long he could remain on paid administrative leave. She said he has asked for a hearing to appeal the suspension, but none has been held.
Montgomery County District Attorney James “Jed” Conboy was appointed special prosecutor by Fulton County Supreme Court Judge Polly Hoye to look into allegations Horning shoved one of his police officers July 1 during a confrontation at Horning’s home. Conboy closed the investigation in February after the officer dropped the charges. It is unknown whether the incident played any role in the chief’s suspension.
Horning has been feuding with Johnstown’s police union since 2009, when he issued the cellphone ban. As the conflict escalated, Horning ordered Schwabrow to remove a Sirius satellite radio from his squad car and took away his use of a take-home vehicle, a privilege normally granted to the city’s K-9 officer.
The JPBA’s withdrawn improper practice charge details an alleged crackdown by Horning on the officers in March 2010 that included 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.
Gifford said police officers have been allowed to put a new stove in the break room; the old one belonged to Horning. He said the K-9 car has been given back to Schwabrow to take home, but the Sirius satellite radio is still prohibited.
“We agreed the radio would not be put back. There were a few reasons, one of them is it is, quite honestly, bad public relations,” he said. “I personally don’t want it in his car and he’s agreed to that.”
Schwabrow said Horning was aware of the satellite radio in 2008, but allowed it until the union filed the improper practice charge about the cellphone ban. He said he viewed Horning’s order to remove the radio as retaliation, but he has no problem keeping it out of his car now.