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Officials: Court-backed police discipline process in Schenectady moving faster

Officials: Court-backed police discipline process in Schenectady moving faster

'There's a little bit of a learning curve on everybody's part'
Officials: Court-backed police discipline process in Schenectady moving faster
Michael C. Eidens is sworn in as Schenectady's public safety commissioner in October.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

When city police officer Daniel Coppola was arrested early Sunday morning on a drunken driving charge, the department soon placed him on desk duty, rather than immediate suspension.

Despite that, Coppola's expected discipline process is expected to be over within two months, even as his criminal driving while intoxicated case may continue.

In years past, such discipline cases have dragged on for more than a year, as officers remained out with pay for much of that time.

It's part of a new system that city officials fought for years to implement -- and the police union fought for years to block in favor of a different reading of the law and a different process. 

The city last October finally won a ruling from the state's highest court that agreed with the city, that a century-old law spelled out the discipline process for city police officers.

At the top of the new disciplinary process is Public Safety Commissioner Michael C. Eidens, a former County Court judge. 

Appointed commissioner after the final court ruling and following the earlier passing of Commissioner Wayne Bennett, Eidens has presided over the disciplinary processes of about a half dozen officers, Eidens said. 

None have led to termination, but some have led to terms of suspension. 

Eidens sees the system as fairer to all involved, compared to the old system.

"There's something to be said for swift determination of a discipline matter," Eidens said Wednesday while discussing the process in general. "It benefits the officer charged. It benefits the city. It benefits the public."

The October Court of Appeals ruling backed the city's use of a law called the Second Class Cities Law that hands disciplinary matters to public safety commissioners to be decided.

The union-preferred Taylor Law mandated that disciplinary procedures for all public employees be the subject of good faith collective bargaining, which led to officers being allowed to appeal decisions to an arbitrator.

The process led to suspended officers paid to stay home from work for months, and in many cases years, until their case was heard. The city spent $1.23 million to fire seven officers in 2010.

Officers questioned during the lengthy court battle between the laws whether they would get a fair deal from the commissioner, who would likely have heard about the case before the hearing. Some officers have questioned whether the commissioner would be able to act as an impartial judge.

A representative of the city police union could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Mayor Gary McCarthy Wednesday called the new process "a quicker, cleaner and more results-oriented process for everybody."

"There's a little bit of a learning curve on everybody's part," McCarthy said of the first seven months the system has been in effect, "but I'm pleased with the way that it's going."

Eidens estimated he has been involved in four or five completed discipline cases since October.  A couple more are in the process. 

None have yet hit the hearing stage, where the commissioner acts as the judge at a sort of mini trial. And there's a seemingly built-in good reason why officers might want to avoid such a hearing: Everything internally up until then is confidential. Hearings are not. They're open to the public and media, as prescribed specifically in the law. Any punishment phase would again be closed.

Coppola's process is believed to still be in its early stages. And, while the Second Class Cities Law provides for a swift process, the punishments are comparatively narrow.

The law provides for reprimands on up to suspensions of up to 30 days. Beyond that, it's termination, though there is a provision for a terminated officer to petition the commissioner within a year to be reinstated.

In Coppola's recent case, the 23-year-old, two-year veteran of the department was arrested after a 4 a.m. crash downtown where police said another car ran a light and hit Coppola's vehicle. Police, however, determined Coppola to be intoxicated. Court paperwork indicated his blood alcohol content was .12. He is due back in City Court on Thursday.

(Coppola's arrest information has not appeared in the department's log of arrests made and it remained absent Wednesday. Asked about that Wednesday, McCarthy said if Coppola's arrest information is not there, "that will be remedied" as all arrests are supposed to be included. He said he would speak with Eidens.)

A 2008 general order issued by Bennett and placed on hold until last October's final court determination then prescribes the steps, some with specific time frames attached:

Accusations of misconduct are referred to the Office of Professional Standards. An investigation is conducted, overseen by an assistant chief. Findings are reported to the assistant chief who then confers with the Corporation Counsel.

When probable cause is established that an officer, among other things, is guilty of something impacting his character or fitness, such as a violation of federal, state or local law, proposed charges are prepared, which are submitted to the police chief.

If everything is in order, the charges are presented to the commissioner and the officer served. 

Between 10 and 20 days after that point, a pre-hearing conference is held and the disciplinary  hearing would be held no less than 20 days after that.

An officer could take his case to the hearing. If found guilty, an appeal on questions of law could be made to the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court.

But an officer could also come to an agreement with the Corporation Counsel. In that case, the agreement is presented to the commissioner to either accept or reject. If the commissioner rejects, the sides can try again with a new agreement, or the officer could opt for the hearing.

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