The Chief
February 2, 2002

Court Union Seeks 'Armor'

Who Pays at Issue

By William Van Auken

    
The Chief-Leader/Gary Fabiano
 
COURTHOUSE THREAT: Supreme Court Officers' Association President James Carr holds up a knife confiscated by a court officer at a press conference at the headquarters of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. Supporting his call for protective vests for his members was PBA Treasurer Joe Alejandro (left).  

The union representing Senior Court Officers blasted the Office of Court Administration last week, claiming that it has refused to provide its members with protective body armor. The need for the bullet and stab-proof vests, the union insisted, became all the more apparent in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

OCA officials have countered that the vests are needed only by those officers patrolling outside the courthouses or operating metal detectors. They added that the union, the Supreme Court Officers' Association, has money in its contract to buy the gear.

Some Have Vests

Meanwhile, court sources reported, tensions over the vests have heightened because another court officers union has brought vests for all of its members using the same funds.

"I asked the Chief Judge whether it will take a terrorist attack in our courtrooms before our members receive the protective equipment they need," SCOA President James Carr said at a Jan. 23 press conference, recounting a recent meeting with Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye. He added that morale among his members was at an "all-time low" because of the vest issue.

"The safety of our court officers is of paramount concern to everyone at OCA," said the agency's spokesman, David Bookstaver. He added that while protective vests were provided for those working outside or on the magnetometers at the entrances, management has a "philosophical difference" with the union about the need to don body armor when working inside the courtrooms.

Safe Inside?

"The inside of a courthouse is not a dangerous place," he said.

Mr. Carr disputed that view at this press conference held at the headquarters of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. He spoke at a table laden with guns, knives, nunchucks and other makeshift weapons that he said had been confiscated by his members. He acknowledged that all of the items in the small arsenal on display had turned up either at metal detectors or in the bushes where defendants sometimes stash them before going inside.

The SCOA represents 1,450 court officers in the Supreme Court facilities in the five boroughs, as well as in courts in five northern suburbs. A second union, the Court Officers' Association, represents officers working in the city's lower courts.

In their last four-year contract, both unions negotiated an annual appropriation averaging over $100,000 under a "Quality Through Participation," or QTP, program designed to improve working conditions.

COA Outfits Members

The COA has used the QTP money to buy vests for its members. The union reported that 800 vests have been distributed this month to officers it represents.

"That's what the QTP money in the contract was supposed to go for, to provide services and equipment for our members," said COA President Dennis W. Quirk. "We believe that when an officer gets hired, he should be properly fitted for a vest in the academy and keep it throughout his career. Whether they want to wear it or not is the officer's choice."

The SCOA, meanwhile funneled the money into rebates on our-of-pocket medical costs, providing up to $175 annually to each of its members.

The rebate arrangement, Mr. Bookstaver said, allows the union to skim off 15 percent of the QTP money as administrative fees, amounting to approximately $44,000.

The OCA spokesman said that the agency had met with the SCOA and urged the union to spend the last infusion of QTP funds, amounting to $116,000, on vests rather than medical rebates. He added that the SCOA could spend the money immediately and that the agency would reimburse it.

“OCA's Responsibility"

"I don't care how Dennis Quirk spends his money; if he chooses to negotiate money for his members and spend it for bullet-proof vests, that's his prerogative," said Mr. Carr. "I don't believe money contractually negotiated to pay for something for our members should go for that. The state should provide it." With a projected judiciary budget of $1.7 billion, he said, OCA could find the money.

The OCA spokesman said that with statewide belt-tightening, the agency was compelled to make spending choices, and viewed the provision of 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week security in the courthouses as more important than buying body armor.

Senior Court Officers who joined Mr. Carr for the press conference indicated that the purchase of individual vests for each officer was both a security issue and a matter of personal hygiene.

Ed Kennedy, who is assigned to Manhattan Criminal Supreme Court, was recently decorated by the Unified Court System for his part in the Sept. 11 rescue operation at the World Trade Center, where three court officers lost their lives. He noted that, while most of those who responded had no vests, his own protective gear absorbed some of the shock when the debris from the towers fell.

Flaws in Present Policy

Mr. Kennedy also said that the vests that are kept in the courthouse for officers who are assigned to patrol the courthouse perimeter were not adequate. Often, these vests are not available in the proper size and therefore do not provide adequate protection. Also, he said, officers are given assignments that send them out of secure courtrooms to the street without a vest.

Senior Court Officer Laura Anderson added that officers were often reluctant to put on one of the vests, which go under their shirts, after it has been worn by a co-worker. "You get one of these vests and it's all dirty and sweaty from the person who had it before you," she said. "It's gross."

 Mr. Carr said that if the SCOA is unable to convince the OCA to pay for the vests, it will consider seeking charitable contributions to pay for the protective gear.