A conference room in the Police Department may look a lot like a courtroom next year.
Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett envisions creating court-like public hearings to handle police discipline, as allowed by a Court of Appeals ruling issued Thursday.
Bennett is planning the new system with Corporation Counsel John Polster and Mayor Gary McCarthy. Under the new process, he plans to hear disciplinary cases within 60 days of an officer being charged with misconduct. In the past, officers waited a year or more while on paid suspension.
The process could be operational by next year, McCarthy said. Still, “I would hope we don’t have to use the process.”
The Court of Appeals decision returns the city to a disciplinary system that has not been used for decades. With it comes a big change: an audience in the room.
The city’s long-ago law on disciplinary hearings specifies that they must be open to the public. That provision has been upheld by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court.
While the openness is unpopular with some of Schenectady’s police officers, Bennett has said open hearings could give the public more confidence in the department, just as open court sessions are intended to promote confidence in the justice system.
“Give them an opportunity to see just how thorough these hearings can be,” he said.
Without open hearings, Bennett said, the public might not believe that justice had been done.
He has been stymied by problems with the secrecy of the union-negotiated process for years. That process was struck down by Thursday’s decision, which said municipalities cannot negotiate discipline with the union.
Under the previous system, city officials were not allowed to release details defending their disciplinary decisions. That hasn’t been easy, both in cases of leniency and termination.
Bennett was forced to remain silent when a city councilwoman staunchly defended an officer who was fired for allegedly driving while intoxicated. The incident occurred off-duty, and the councilwoman argued that the officer should be given another chance. Bennett couldn’t explain why the arbitrator who heard the case did not agree.
Likewise, when an officer was given only a 30-day suspension for an alleged off-duty drunken brawl, residents said it was an outrage — but they could not review the facts to determine whether the arbitrator had truly erred. The city eventually brought additional charges against that officer, and he was fired.
The arbitrator held closed hearings, at which officers brought their attorneys and, usually, boxes of paperwork.
Bennett said the proceedings were much like a court case, and he expects to preside openly over similar hearings.
“There will be motions made by opposing counsel,” he said.
He wants the city attorneys to prosecute, while another attorney is assigned to help him handle the legal technicalities of a trial.
“I think it’s advisable,” he said.
But he may not need much help. Bennett has served on three-member hearing panels for state police disciplinary hearings, so he’s familiar with the process.
“It’s not new ground for me,” he said.
Some troopers have been exonerated under that system, while others were found guilty and punished. Those who believe they were treated wrongly can file an Article 78 proceeding with the courts to show that the evidence was improper or the punishment was too severe.
But Bennett said the process won’t be a “kangaroo court,” as some officers have complained.
“Due process will be provided,” he said.
He also does not expect a public hearing to hurt the officers’ ability to work.
The police union has opposed making hearings public on the argument that officers’ reputations would be damaged.
Calls to attorney Michael Ravalli, who represents the union, were not returned. But in the past, union officials said officers might later encounter residents who ignore lawful orders because they no longer respect the particular officer.
But Bennett noted that officers facing discipline in closed hearings have had their charges widely covered by the media anyway. And no one has been treated badly by residents later, he said.
“That has not happened,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any problems.”
But, he said, commanders could simply assign another officer to respond to an incident if a resident objected to the first officer.
And, he added, an open hearing could help officers who are found not guilty.
“Certainly if the officer was exonerated, they’d have no reason to be concerned,” he said.
Bennett also plans to use public hearings as a threat to push officers to plead guilty without going through a trial. He plans to warn them that they might be embarrassed in a public hearing, and that they “can’t control what evidence comes out.”
“All the evidence is brought forward,” he said.
He previously used this system for a short time, before the police union challenged it, and several officers pleaded guilty to avoid a public hearing.