The New York Times
June 20, 2007

Police Sobriety Test Proposal Could Lead to a Showdown With Unions


The Police Department and leading police unions might be headed for a showdown over a proposal to administer sobriety tests to officers who shoot someone on or off duty.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Monday that he was moving to require breath tests for officers who injure or kill people in shootings, and his aides said yesterday that the procedure could be put in place, perhaps by September, whether labor groups agreed or not. The aides said the department’s senior legal expert had vetted “the legal issues involved” and “concluded that such a policy would be constitutional.”

But Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents 23,000 officers, said the proposal was, on its merits, the kind of work rule that is subject to bargaining. “The P.B.A. will not allow management to cast doubt on every shooting by subjecting a police officer to a test for which there is no cause or justification,” he said.

Michael J. Palladino, the president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, which represents 5,500 detectives, vowed yesterday to go to court to stop any breath tests.

The unions could raise the issue with the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining. A spokesman for the office declined to comment.

Mr. Kelly has embraced the measure, one of 19 recommendations by a panel that the commissioner created after a Queens man, Sean Bell, 23, was fatally shot in a volley of 50 police bullets on the morning of his wedding.

The breath test plan could be interpreted as an acknowledgment that the police operations in the Bell case, which occurred outside a strip club in Jamaica on the morning of Nov. 25, went off track, though Mr. Kelly stressed that the panel did not investigate specifics of the shooting.

The department allows undercover officers to consume up to two alcoholic drinks in one eight-hour shift so as not to look suspicious. According to a Police Department report on the Bell shooting, one of the detectives involved — but not one of the five officers who fired his gun — had consumed two bottles of Heineken beer while in the club. It was unclear what types of drinks or amounts that the other detectives ordered.

Robert W. Linn, the president of Linn & Green Consulting, a labor relations firm, who was the director of the city’s office of labor relations during the administration of Mayor Edward I. Koch and worked as a negotiator for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said, “There are generally employer interests to make certain that people who are performing sensitive jobs, especially jobs involving the use of firearms, are doing so in a sober manner.”

He added, “On the other hand, the union has an interest to make certain that individuals are safeguarded and that there are protections and that people are treated fairly.”

Mr. Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, expressed support yesterday for the breath tests. She said she wanted the policy to be made into law on the state and federal levels.

“We will never know, I will never know, no one will ever know, if the people who did this were intoxicated,” Ms. Paultre Bell said.

The department already heavily regulates alcohol consumption by officers. There is a longstanding ban on being intoxicated while on duty. The department’s policy manual cautions all officers to “be fit for duty at all times, except when on sick report” and warns them, “Do not consume intoxicants to the extent that member becomes unfit for duty.”

Police officers are not subject to automatic breath tests if they crash a vehicle while on duty. But firefighters involved in on-duty crashes face breath and drug tests if the accident involves “a serious injury or fatality,” said James Long, a spokesman for the Fire Department.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that if a supervisor at a crash scene believed a police officer was intoxicated, a duty captain would be summoned and, upon his determination that the officer was unfit, the officer would be arrested, suspended and given a breath test. There have been no such cases in recent memory, Mr. Browne said.

On the streets, police officers treated the latest announcement from 1 Police Plaza without alarm.

“Whatever the rules are, that’s what I follow,” said one officer as he mounted a police motorcycle outside the 70th Precinct station house. Another officer said: “I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t drink, so no big deal.”

And a third officer said: “I think it’s a good thing. Anything that makes the public feel more at ease and lifts the cloud over police shootings is a good thing.” He paused and added: “The only downside is if a police officer is inebriated. No police officer should ever be inebriated at any time.”

Ann Farmer contributed reporting.