Rochester City Council is appealing a court decision that struck down the fledgling Police Accountability Board’s disciplinary powers, stripping it of a key function.
In a filing submitted Friday to the state Appellate Division court, City Council disputes state Supreme Court Justice John Ark’s May 7 decision in a case brought by the Rochester Police Locust Club, the union representing Rochester police officers, challenging the board’s creation and powers. Ark ruled that the board cannot discipline officers or conduct hearings in disciplinary matters
Members of the Rochester City Council said they are confident the appeal will be upheld.
“The City Council is ready to defend the will of the citizens, and (Ark's) decision is not the final say," Councilmember Willie Lightfoot, said Friday.
In his ruling, Ark stated that prior to 1985, the city’s charter gave authority to discipline police officers to “Rochester officials.” But that year, City Council “explicitly submitted RPD discipline matters to state law” by eliminating the police discipline portion of the City Charter on the grounds that the matter was covered under state Civil Service law, he wrote.
Andrew Celli, attorney for City Council in the case, said Ark focused specifically on the 1985 law, and failed to take into account rulings that followed.
"The judge focused on something Rochester did in 1985 when it essentially passed a law that said it would comply with the Taylor Law and collectively bargain with police unions, because it was believed at the time that was what state law required," Celli said. "In 2006 the Court of Appeals said 'no, for places like Rochester you don't have to do that.'"
The appeal invokes a trio of cases from the mid-2000s that it argues affirms the city’s right to discipline officers and reinforce that it cannot address officer discipline through collective bargaining. Those cases, the appeal claims, were not effectively evaluated in the original suit.
The local law establishing and empowering the Police Accountability Board conflicts with state statutes specifying that final authority over how an officer is disciplined remains with the officer’s commander — either the chief or the supervising governmental body.
City Council’s appeal filing argues that the 1907 state law granting the city of Rochester a charter expressly grants the city “local control over police discipline.” The city retains that authority because the charter predated state laws granting collective bargaining rights to public employees and laying out disciplinary procedures for them
“This case raises important issues of state power over localities—but it involves more than that,” the appeal reads. “Issues of accountability and civilian oversight of police are at the center of an ongoing national debate. Police officers are public employees, whose salaries come from the public fisc, in this case, the tax dollars paid by Rochester’s citizens.”
While there is no deadline for a ruling, Celli was hopeful a ruling could be made by the end of 2020 or early 2021.
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.