Schenectady and other municipalities throughout the state have the right to fire their own officers, rather than turning to an arbitrator to make the decision, the Court of Appeals has ruled.
In a long-awaited decision, the state’s highest court ruled unanimously that discipline — from suspension to termination — isn’t a matter of union negotiation. Any municipality that had laws governing police discipline before the Taylor Law went into effect can still use those laws to discipline officers, the court ruled.
“This is what we were hoping for,” Schenectady Corporation Counsel John Polster said.
The decision overturns the disciplinary practices that have been in place for decades. Schenectady, like most municipalities, believed it had to negotiate discipline after the state passed the Taylor Act in 1967.
That belief has wide-ranging effects. Schenectady’s police chiefs have negotiated with union leaders before imposing any penalties on a misbehaving officer. Union leaders have become adept at that negotiation, maintaining spreadsheets that go back years to show exactly what penalties have been imposed for each type of offense. When chiefs wanted to crack down and hold officers to a higher standard, union leaders fought back and stopped some of the discipline.
City officials also had lengthy negotiations with the union over who could decide whether an officer should be disciplined. Arbitrators were sometimes chosen on the basis of their previous decisions, with union leaders insisting on arbitrators who had often ruled in favor of police.
It led to agonizingly slow discipline, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said. Officers were suspended for more than a year, at times, until an arbitrator was available to hear the case.
All that now appears to be over.
The court said that discipline can’t be negotiated if a municipality had a process for disciplining officers — before the Taylor Law. In those cases, discipline “is a prohibited subject of collective bargaining.”
Schenectady has such a law. It specifies that the public safety commissioner holds a public hearing, similar to a trial, to determine whether an officer should be disciplined and what the penalty should be, if any.
But then the Taylor Law came along. It said police discipline “may” be included in collective bargaining agreements with police unions. The law also said it did not repeal or modify any laws that municipalities already had in place.
The Court of Appeals cited that part of the law. The judges decided it meant that if municipalities already had a non-contractual way to discipline officers, they could keep it.
Bennett is thrilled.
“Obviously, we’re very pleased,” he said after reading the short, four-page decision.
He said he will be able to discipline officers within 30 to 60 days of their alleged misconduct. And, he said he would do a better job than an arbitrator hired from outside the city.
“You have to set your own standards for your department,” he said. “If you want to maintain those standards, you have to have disciplinary cases with those standards in mind.”
But arbitrators don’t have to stick to those standards — they can set their own. They also don’t have to adhere to the same penalties the previous arbitrator set for the same infraction.
“Now you get discipline that’s all over the board. Not good,” Bennett said. “Inconsistency breeds more inconsistency.”
The Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of municipal discipline before. It first decided that the Taylor Law did not change disciplinary processes in a case involving New York City. There, the police commissioner had disciplinary authority before the Taylor Law went into effect. The court ruled that the commissioner still had that authority.
But many municipal officials questioned whether that decision applied to other municipalities that did not have commissioners. Officials from the town of Wallkill said they should be able to use laws dating back to before the Taylor Act, and did so to discipline two officers. The police union appealed, and the case went all the way to the Court of Appeals. On Thursday, the court backed the town.
In Wallkill, that means a Town Board member or a designee of the Town Board conducts a hearing, issues a decision and recommends a penalty. The Town Board reviews the decision, makes a final decision and imposes a penalty.
The law in Schenectady is very similar, except that Schenectady’s disciplinary law specifies that the hearing be public and held by the commissioner, rather than the City Council.
According to The Associated Press, a lawyer for the Wallkill Police Benevolent Association warned in arguments last month that the Court of Appeals could upset public sector labor relations and union contracts established over decades under the Taylor Law.
Attorney John Crotty said he couldn’t overstate the significance of a decision allowing municipalities to discipline their officers. A call to Crotty from the AP was not immediately returned Thursday.
Joseph McKay, an attorney representing Wallkill, told the AP that Thursday’s ruling upheld municipal authority under New York’s Town Law from the 1920s. Papers filed in court also cited more than 1,600 other towns, villages and cities that would be affected by the decision.
“This is a landmark ruling,” McKay said. “This makes definitively clear that the public policy in New York state is for towns and villages to maintain strong control over their police forces, and that trumps public policy under the Taylor Law concerning negotiation of police disciplinary issues.”
McKay said the ruling does more than give municipalities disciplinary authority. The ruling says they must exercise it and not negotiate it with police unions, effectively voiding any such existing contractual provisions, he said.