A deputy chief for the Utica Fire Department is criticizing the city for a “double standard” he believes exists relating to discipline for the city’s police and fire personnel.
Deputy fire Chief Mark Ambrose’s claim, based on the city’s 2018 discipline of former interim Fire Chief John Kelly, comes amid investigations against two Utica police officers separately accused in the last month of excessive force.
Kelly was disciplined after a city investigation into a series of texts between Kelly and Ambrose’s son, a prospective Utica fire recruit at the time, that referenced masturbating and other lewd acts on fire department property. Following the investigation, Kelly was docked two vacation days, according to records released last week. He also stepped down from the interim chief’s position the same day a settlement with the city was reached, remaining with the fire department.
The actions by the two Utica police officers, meanwhile, are under investigation by the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office.
Officer Matthew Felitto was suspended for 30 days without pay after authorities reviewed body camera footage from a Sept. 4 altercation, which showed him kicking a suspect’s head multiple times during an arrest. A few weeks later, Sgt. Samuel Geddes was suspended without pay after allegedly spraying pepper spray on a suspect and nearby teenager during a confrontation in August.
The city is seeking their termination, officials stated shortly after both incidents.
Ambrose said Kelly’s demotion to his previous position was “putting the fox right back in the hen-house.” He also compared the Kelly case to that involving former city firefighter Richard Forte, who was convicted last year of making a punishable false statement, fourth-degree criminal mischief and third-degree criminal tampering for masturbating onto a female firefighter’s article of clothing.
“Why don’t you remove the person and follow the same procedural?” Ambrose said.
City rebuts argument
City officials said in an emailed response there were differences between Kelly’s case and those of individuals such as Forte or of the Utica police officers.
Officials were previously mum about the discipline surrounding the Kelly case. But recently, there was a repeal of a section of New York’s Civil Rights Law that had mostly barred the release of police and fire personnel records to the public.
Kelly’s personnel records were released via a Freedom of Information Law submitted by Ambrose; the Observer-Dispatch obtained a copy of the records.
In the records, a June 2018 email from Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara states that while Kelly’s behavior was “bizarre,” there appeared to be no prosecutable criminal activity on Kelly’s part. Much of the conduct in question also occurred more than 18 months before the investigation, with many of the messages reviewed going back to 2015 and 2016, falling outside state Civil Service Law’s statute of limitations, officials said.
“Due to the fact none of the conduct of the case in question encompassed criminal activity, the City was extremely limited on what conduct it could actually issue discipline for, as the vast majority of the incidents occurred more than 18 months before it was brought to the Administration’s attention,” officials said in a statement.
City officials also said the case involving Kelly did not involve a formal complaint by anyone, or was found to violate civil rights.
“The investigation of the case in question proved there was no violation of anyone’s civil rights as the actions by all involved parties were made by consenting adults,” officials said.
Ambrose said he believes sexual harassment did take place, noting a state Department of Labor’s model policy that includes shared sexual imagery or comments made under its definition.
City officials, however, state that the misconduct by Kelly is not defined as sexual harassment because “all actions by all parties was consensual.”