When you go to court, it doesn’t get much better than a clear, forceful, unanimous decision by the highest tribunal around. That’s what the city of Schenectady, and other municipalities in the state interested in disciplining their own police officers, got from the Court of Appeals Thursday. It’s great news for the municipalities and their taxpayers, who stand not only to get better police forces but to save time and money now wasted on errant officers.
Schenectady has had more than its share of those in recent years, but until now its hands have been tied in dealing with them. It was long thought that, under state Civil Service Law and the Taylor Act of 1968, police discipline was a matter for collective bargaining, which meant that most serious cases (such as drunken driving, leaving the scene of an accident, illegally taking time off, harassing or beating up wives or girlfriends — some of the specialties of Schenectady officers) would be decided not by city officials but outside arbitrators. The process was long and expensive, with the prospect of significant legal expenses and officers being paid to sit home for months waiting for a hearing. And because it allowed police unions to veto any arbitrators they didn’t like, it often resulted in arbitrators who would water down the municipality's disciplinary action or reject it altogether.
Since 2007, Schenectady has been one of the municipalities in the state challenging this process. It did so based on a 2006 Court of Appeals decision that sided with New York City, which had a local law giving disciplinary authority to the police commissioner that predated the Taylor Law. Schenectady Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett wanted the same authority for himself, and claimed it based on the city charter’s reference to a public safety commissioner and to the Second Class Cities Law, which clearly gives a public safety commissioner the authority to discipline officers. Bennett also wanted any hearings to be public.
There was some doubt whether the city would prevail. Twice it was rebuffed. The first time was in 2008, when local judge Barry Kramer ruled, in the case at hand, that the hearings shouldn’t be public — and, although not asked, went beyond that to opine that the city didn’t have the right to discipline its own officers. The other time was last year, when the state Public Employment Relations Board, ignoring a state Appellate Division decision that said Kramer had “erred,” ruled that discipline had to be negotiated between the city and union.
Now the Court of Appeals has spoken in a case involving the town of Wallkill. It said that a municipality with “any general, special or local law” existing before the Taylor Law effect can assert disciplinary authority over its police force. That should be the last word on the subject.