Officials in a Hudson Valley town have the authority to suspend, fire or otherwise discipline their police officers for misbehavior instead of turning cases over to an independent arbitrator under the terms of their union contract, New York’s top court ruled Thursday.
In a unanimous ruling that could affect municipal police departments statewide, the Court of Appeals concluded the 2007 local law adopted in Wallkill, putting police discipline cases before a hearing officer chosen by the Town Board, is based on a state statute adopted before New York’s Civil Service Law took effect.
“Accordingly, the subject of police discipline resides with the Town Board and is a prohibited subject of collective bargaining” between the town and the Police Officers’ Benevolent Association, the court said. The ruling was issued in a memorandum, without an individual author. It was approved by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judges Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, Victoria Graffeo, Susan Read, Robert Smith, Eugene Pigott Jr. and Theodore Jones Jr.
New York City’s authority to discipline police was established by the court in a 2006 ruling, along with Rockland County’s Orangetown, under other statutes that predated the state’s Taylor Law. That article of the Civil Service Law says police discipline provisions can be set by collective bargaining.
The 1995 agreement between the town and the Wallkill Police Officers’ Benevolent Association gave police the right to a disciplinary hearing before a neutral arbitrator.
Court papers cited more than 1,600 other towns, villages and cities that could be affected by Thursday’s ruling.
John Crotty, a lawyer for the Wallkill Police Benevolent Association, warned in arguments last month against upsetting public sector labor relations and union contracts established over decades under New York’s Taylor Law. He said he couldn’t overstate the significance. A call to Crotty was not immediately returned Thursday.
Joseph McKay, an attorney representing Wallkill, said Thursday’s ruling upheld municipal authority under New York’s Town Law from the 1920s. He said there is a nearly identical provision by the state’s Village Law. A midlevel court upheld the city of Middletown’s police discipline authority, and other cities with similar charter language should likewise have it, he said.
“This is a landmark ruling,” McKay said. “This makes definitively clear that the public policy in New York state is for towns and villages to maintain strong control over their police forces, and that trumps public policy under the Taylor Law concerning negotiation of police disciplinary issues.”
McKay said the ruling does more than give towns the authority, but says they must exercise it and not negotiate it with police unions, effectively voiding any such existing contractual provisions. “The towns should, I think must, enact some type of procedures,” he said, which could be existing arbitration or other approaches that have minimum due process guarantees, though they could no longer be negotiated.