Who can discipline Rochester police? State Court of Appeals hears arguments

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The Police Accountability Board’s power to discipline Rochester police officers continues to be at issue.

A lower court ruled in favor of the police union, the Locust Club, after the union said granting the PAB this power violates fair process and protection of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

The PAB appealed, and Wednesday both sides were back in court.

Attorneys for the Rochester Police Union and Rochester City Council presented arguments Wednesday in front of the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany.

Some background: Rochester City Council voted in 2019 to create the civilian-controlled Police Accountability Board. This board is responsible for investigating and resolving police misconduct and complaints. Fast forward a year later to 2020, when the state Supreme Court removed the PAB’s ability to discipline officers based on a 1985 state law. The PAB is appealing that decision.

Judge:  In 1985 was it also at a time when the city had negotiated a contract with the police union, which included a provision regarding police discipline?

Andrew Celli Jr. Attorney, City of Rochester: Exactly right, Judge Egan. And in fact, had been doing this for a decade.

The police union filed a lawsuit against Rochester City Council. The union claims allowing the PAB to discipline RPD officers would violate the bargaining requirement of the Taylor Law. That law protects public employees when it comes to collective bargaining.

“The 2019 legislation was not authorized under the municipal home rule law because it did conflict with a general law once the early provisions of the city charter were gone and didn’t exist anymore. Now they go to take action in 2019. The Taylor Law requires bargaining over police discipline in Rochester,”  Daniel DeBolt, the attorney for the Rochester Locust Club, said.

City Council argued residents support the PAB and voted for the board to have the power to discipline officers.

“We know that the state of New York has blessed the moving of authority over the discipline of policing to civilians. It’s happened regularly,” Celli said.

The Locust Club attorney reemphasized this goes against the law, saying they’re not fighting against accountability, they’re protecting unionized workers rights.

“It cannot be the rule that 20, 30, 40 years down the road the legislature realizes that there was some unintended consequences of something we did decades ago so we now get to treat that as nullity as if it never happened,” Deboit said.

The court did not make a decision Wednesday. It is expected to make a ruling in the next six to eight weeks.