The Chief

January 14, 2000

 

City Hall Talks on P.D. Discipline Bill

Focus on Vallone

By William Van Auken

Police union officials were prominent among the crowd last month at a $1,000-a-plate dinner honoring City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone on his 65th birthday.

While the celebration figured to swell Mr. Vallone's campaign coffers in preparation for the 2001 mayoral election, the delegation from the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the other NYPD unions had a more immediate concern.

Key to Bill's Fate

The Council Speaker has become the key figure in behind-the-scenes bargaining over a piece of legislation known as the Police Discipline Bill.

The measure, which would expand the disciplinary powers of the Police Commissioner to include demotions, one-year suspension and fines of up to $25,000 for officers found guilty of administrative misconduct, has become the target of a concerted public relations campaign by the Coalition of Police Unions.

The five unions representing uniformed members of the NYPD insist that with the department itself boasting that police performance is at an all-time high and police misconduct on the decline, there is no need for putting sharper teeth in the disciplinary penalties.

"The Speaker's office and the Mayor's Office are negotiating on a modified version of the bill," Police Commissioner Howard Safir said at a recent press conference. "I am hopeful that we will see it shortly."

90-Day Suspensions?

Police union leaders speculate that the Council could be presented with police discipline "lite" as early as next month. The measure could include 90-day suspensions, rather than the year-long ones proposed in the first draft, and lesser fines. It would also likely clarify the provision on demotions. As it is currently written, the commissioner would be empowered to bust an Inspector down to a cop. Presumably the revised draft would stipulate that demotions would be limited to a single pay grade.

While a City Council spokesperson confirmed that negotiations on the bill are taking place, he provided no details on the talks.

Police union leaders vow to oppose any tightening of disciplinary penalties. In their effort to kill the bill, the unions have focused on Mr. Vallone and those Council members serving on the Public Safety Committee, attempting to mobilize active and retired members in their districts in a letter-writing campaign.

The Sergeants' Benevolent Association, for example, said that it had identified more that 900 active and retired Sergeants in Mr. Vallone's Queens district and urged them to lobby the Speaker.

'Bill is Unfair'

"We've got a lot of people living in the city who think that this bill is unfair," said Joseph V. Toal, who stepped down as SBA president last month. "I think that the Council is starting to realize that we woke up on this."

Asked if the Mayor and the Speaker might think twice about alienating the police unions on the eve of their anticipated electoral campaigns, Mr. Toal answered, "I sure hope so."

The police unions have good reason to be hopeful. Approved by the Public Safety Committee in 1997, the measure was scheduled for a vote in December of that year, only to be taken off the calendar on the orders of Mr. Vallone.

There was widespread speculation that the Speaker, who has received substantial campaign contributions from the police unions, did not wish to alienate them as he was preparing his unsuccessful 1998 run for Governor.

In Speaker's hands

Since the end of 1997, the Speaker's office has taken over the legislation, and it is not clear whether a new draft will be submitted to the Public Safety Committee before scheduling a vote by the council.

The committee's chair, Queens Council Member Sheldon S. Leffler, declined to discuss the bill, saying that he had held five hearings on the legislation in 1997 and made "an awful lot of comments" about it before it was taken out of his hands by the Council Speaker.

One police union leader lamented the way in which NYPD policy and the discipline issue has been turned into a "political football."

"They're making decisions by tenure, just looking at their own political futures," said John Driscoll, president of the Captain's Endowment Association. "They're not looking out for what's best for the citizens of this city or the Police Department."

Mr. Driscoll predicted that whatever happens with the bill, Mayor Giuliani would put his own "political spin" on it.

"If it's passed, he'll say the Council has just passed my police discipline bill and that's solved the problem," he said. "If it's not, he'll say he asked the Council for the bill two years ago and they've still not passed it."

Whatever the legislation's fate, the Captains' union leader said, it is the wrong remedy for a wrongly understood problem.

"The Louima case is not indicative of the New York City Police Department," said Mr. Driscoll. "It is an aberration." He added that the bill was not designed to address such criminal cases, but only violations of administrative discipline.

"This is like political pandering," he said. "They need a scapegoat for the Eastern District." The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District is expected to soon release a critical report on police misconduct and discipline based on an investigation initiated in the wake of the 1997 assault on Abner Louima in a Brooklyn stationhouse.