SCHENECTADY — Mayor Gary McCarthy on Tuesday named former Schenectady County Court Judge Michael C. Eidens as the city's public safety commissioner.
McCarthy made the announcement at City Hall while joined by members of both the police and fire departments. Eidens will oversee both as commissioner.
In making the appointment, McCarthy cited Eidens' long history in the legal community as a judge, as well as his time on the county Legislature.
"He brings a command presence, a tremendous knowledge of this community and a high level of integrity to this position of public safety commissioner," McCarthy said.
McCarthy also named Kristin Diotte as the city's new director of development. Eidens is to be paid $94,000, Diotte $70,000.
Eidens takes over the post long held by Wayne Bennett, who died in August. He also takes a role that was strengthened earlier in October with a state Court of Appeals ruling that confirmed the commissioner has sole discretion over police discipline in the city.
That ruling came after a years-long legal dispute between the city and the union that represents police in the city.
Eidens accepted the post and noted that the Appeals Court's decision turns the job into a quasi-judicial one.
Kristin Diotte was named the city's new director of development. (Marc Schultz)
Eidens served as Schenectady County Court judge for one 10-year term — 1995 to 2004 — before choosing not to seek re-election at age 54.
He later served two years on the Legislature before resigning to serve as a judicial hearing officer in County Court. In that role, he has presided over pre-trial hearings in multiple high-profile cases.
"I have evaluated police testimony and police conduct in judicial hearings for approximately 30 years, always being fair and always being impartial and always being firm," Eidens said. "And as commissioner, I will continue to do just that."
Police officers have questioned whether they will get fair treatment from the commissioner, who will likely have heard about any disciplinary cases before the hearings. Some officers have also questioned whether the commissioner would be able to act as an impartial judge.
Peter Mullen, president of the Police Benevolent Association. (Marc Schultz)
Among those present at Tuesday's announcement was city patrolman Peter Mullen, president of the Police Benevolent Association.
Mullen said he hasn't had much direct interaction with Eidens, but what what he's been told is good.
"From what I hear, he's a good man and a fair and impartial man," Mullen said. "We'll be looking forward to working with him."
Mullen also referenced the recent court decision and its implications for the future of police discipline in the city. McCarthy has said there are no cases in the pipeline now that rise to the level of commissioner review.
Mullen said the union's hope is never to have to use that provision.
"That's our goal," he said.
Eidens received his undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and his law degree from Albany Law School. Before serving as County Court judge, he served as a judge in Glenville and Scotia and as a prosecutor in the Schenectady County District Attorney's Office.
Eidens lives in Glenville. McCarthy said he would consider a waiver of the city's residency requirement for Eidens, but the issue hasn't yet come up.
McCarthy first contacted Eidens more than a week ago to discuss the post. The Court of Appeals decision helped lead McCarthy to Eidens, McCarthy said.
"I was taken by surprise," Eidens said of McCarthy's proposal. "I had no idea that he was thinking about this. But as we talked, and as I thought about it, I realized that it actually did make a lot of sense, based on my background and the interests I have."
Eidens said he expects to spend time at both the fire and police departments, as well as City Hall.
McCarthy indicated he sees Eidens' work to include city issues beyond the police and fire departments.
Eidens expects to leave the day-to-day management of the police and fire departments to the chiefs and their command staff.
"I will be available. I will be accessible to provide some guidance and input, and I will work with them to improve the way they do things," Eidens said.
He also expects to respond to major crime or fire scenes, as Bennett did. He will use his skills there, too, he said. But responding to emergencies won't be his primary function, he said.
"I'm not going to pretend to try to be a police officer. That's not my role," Eidens said. "But my background — my legal background as a DA and as a judge — I'll be helpful, especially on scenes of some major crimes."
He also wants to look for creative solutions to common problems the city faces, such as the opioid and overall drug epidemic, as well as homelessness. As County Court judge, Eidens started the county's drug court program that is still going strong. That program allows for treatment, rather than incarceration, of drug addicts charged with crimes.
"I think how we deal with these problems will set us apart," Eidens said.
Police Chief Eric Clifford called the choice of Eidens a solid one and said he's happy with it. Clifford noted he's been before Eidens in Eidens' most recent role as a judicial hearing officer, and Clifford said he's always respected his work.
"I look forward to working with him and having him be involved in a lot of the decisions we make at the police department," Clifford said.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney also praised the pick.
Carney said he's known Eidens for 40 years. While he called Bennett "a giant of the police profession," he called Eidens "a giant of our criminal justice system in Schenectady."
Eidens made many difficult decisions as a judge, and Carney hardly ever disagreed with him even when rulings went against his office, Carney said.
"I believe that the police community — both sides of the police community, management and the labor side — will be well served by his tenure in this job. The mayor couldn't have made a better choice."