Senate OKs less local say on cops

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

Many of the faces have changed, and so has the majority party, but the state Senate is more united than ever in its willingness to potentially weaken disciplinary consequences for cops and firefighters accused of wrongdoing.

This week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill (S5803) that would make ultimate employee discipline* determinations a subject of collective bargaining. Unions representing police and firefighters could then 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. An Assembly version of the measure (A6109) is still in committee with no sign of movement—but as usual, anything could happen during the rush to adjournment over the coming week.

This year’s bill marks the latest attempt 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 (something that has gained fresh relevance with the Eric Garner case).

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.”

Of course, that’s not the way the unions see it. Between 2006 and 2010, proposals to make police discipline a mandatory subject of collective bargaining were passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Governors Pataki, Spitzer and Paterson. Such a bill most recently passed in 2014 with only two negative votes in the Senate, only to be pocket-vetoed (left unsigned) by Governor Andrew Cuomo before that year ended.

It’s impossible to say for sure what Cuomo will do if the bill reaches his desk again, but it’s worth noting that just a year ago, the governor pushed unsuccessfully to give the state corrections commissioner the power to fire correctional officers in certain circumstances.

Previous versions of the discipline bargaining measure were sponsored by Sen. Martin Golden, a conservative Republican from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This year’s bill is sponsored by Andrew Gounardes, the “progressive” Democrat who unseated Golden last year.

* “Discipline” here refers specifically to the step at which a final determination is made—whether, for example, the decision to suspend or fire an officer accused of wrongdoing is made by a police commissioner or chief answerable to elected officials, or by an independent arbitrator. “Discipline procedures,” such as the manner in which someone is questioned, are already subject to negotiation.

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- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.