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Cuomo weighs police discipline bill that would shift authority to arbitrators

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo leaves the

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo leaves the wake of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu at the Aievoli Funeral Home in Brooklyn, on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. Photo Credit: AP / John Minchillo

ALBANY -- Against a backdrop of tense times among police, protesters and elected officials, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is weighing a controversial bill that would alter disciplinary procedures for cops.

The bill, strongly backed by police unions, would take disciplinary matters out of the hands of local police commissioners and put them before an independent arbitrator. Though the measure was written expressly to address New York City police, it would apply to a few counties -- including Nassau and Suffolk.

New York's three governors preceding Cuomo each vetoed similar measures, citing the loss of local control, among other factors. Cuomo vetoed a comparable proposal that would have affected State Police, a move some believe may signal where he stands on the local police bill.

The police unions have been fighting this issue since New York's top court, the Court of Appeals, in 2006 unanimously affirmed a police commissioner's power over disciplinary matters.

In its ruling, the court noted that as far back as 1888 it determined that police discipline must "rest wholly in the discretion of the commissioners" and that even though collective bargaining issues developed since, "the public interest in preserving official authority over the police remains powerful."

Bill awaits gov's signature

Last June, just nine days before the State Legislature adjourned for the year, two lawmakers introduced a bill to override the Court of Appeals decision: Assemb. Peter Abbate Jr. (D-Brooklyn), long a champion of unions, and state Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn), a former policeman.

The legislature approved the measure on its final day and then waited until Dec. 30 to send the bill to Cuomo. The delay was attributable, in part, to the ongoing unrest following a grand jury's decision not to indict a policeman in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and the later assassination of two police officers in Brooklyn by a man with a history of mental troubles, a source said.

Cuomo has until Jan. 28 to act. If he doesn't act, the bill is vetoed.

In a memo supporting the bill, Golden and Abbate said police officers are "entitled to collectively bargain the disciplinary procedures that affect them in their employment."

James Carver, head of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, said taking disciplinary authority away from a commissioner would "give fairness to" disciplinary procedures.

"When a commissioner can be judge and jury, it's almost impossible to overturn a ruling," Carver said. He said independent arbitrators determine disciplinary actions in "a lot of jurisdictions."

'Takes the politics out'

"It takes the politics out of discipline," he said. "An independent arbitrator gives balance."

Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo didn't return several calls seeking comment.

The New York Conference of Mayors and the state Association of Towns have joined with fiscal critics urging a veto. NYCOM said the Court of Appeals got it right when it said "local governments should not be required to surrender their authority and negotiate disciplinary procedures under circumstances when the Legislature has expressly granted disciplinary authority to local officials."

A fiscal watchdog said the proposal would take away local accountability, undercut a commissioner's ability to sanction abusive officers and needlessly draw out the process.

"If you like the way teacher discipline works, you'll love doing police discipline this way," said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. He said the governor's choice is not about "pro- or anti-police" but rather "pro- or anti-democracy."

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