In the wake of George Floyd’s death under a kneeling Minneapolis police officer, some New York State lawmakers are renewing calls for legislation designed to uncover police disciplinary records. But less than a year ago, state senators in both parties voted in favor of union-backed legislation that would make it harder to fire New York police officers credibly accused of using excessive force or other offenses.
On June 13, 2019, the Senate unanimously passed a bill (S5803) that would make the final determination of disciplinary penalties a subject of collective bargaining. If such a measure ever became law, unions representing police and firefighters could negotiate for the same drawn-out, arbitrator-decided process that has made it difficult for the MTA to fire bus drivers with bad safety records and for New York State to discipline attendants who abuse disabled people.
The bill—which failed to pass in the Assembly and didn’t emerge from committee in this year’s pandemic-truncated session—was the most recent in a long line of attempts by police and fire unions to nullify a unanimous 2006 state Court of Appeals decision affirming the New York City police commissioner’s ultimate power over disciplinary matters in the NYPD.
This ruling, in turn, affirmed other local laws around the state that give local elected officials control of the police and fire disciplinary process. As Judge Robert Smith wrote in one of those cases, “the public interest in preserving official authority over the police remains powerful.”
Between 2006 and 2010, proposals to make all stages of police discipline a mandatory subject of collective bargaining were passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Governors Pataki, Spitzer and Paterson. When the same measure reached Governor Cuomo’s desk in 2014, he took the more passive approach of leaving it unsigned and allowing it to die via a pocket-veto. The bill passed the Senate in 2018 by a 62-0 vote, but died in the Assembly that year.
Among those voting for the measure in 2019: freshman Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, who said he was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by police during Friday night protests at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.
Previous versions of the discipline bargaining measure were sponsored by Sen. Martin Golden, a former police officer and conservative Republican from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The current version is sponsored by Sen. Andrew Gounardes, the “progressive” Democrat who unseated Golden in 2018.