Civil service law nixes Kingston’s plan for more openness in cop complaint cases

Egidio Tinti. (Esther Joy/ProjectEJ.com)

Mayor Steve Noble this week had to walk back a promise to provide written decisions in police discipline cases, after city attorneys told him that doing so would violate state civil service law.

The Kingston Police Department and the five-member police commission headed by Noble have been under pressure to enact reforms since this summer, when the activist group Citizen Action of the Hudson Valley filed complaints on behalf of four city residents who claimed that they had been victims of excessive force at the hands of city cops. In November, Noble agreed to enact some of the changes sought by the group, including automatic police commission review of all use-of-force incidents by city police, whether or not they result in a civilian complaint. Noble also pledged to provide written opinions in all cases where the commission reviewed a civilian complaint of officer misconduct. The opinions, Noble said, would inform the public of whether the officer in question had been found to have violated a particular departmental policy, or why the complaint did not merit disciplinary action.

But on Monday, in response to a Kingston Times request for written opinions on four excessive force complaints taken up by the commission last month, Noble spokeswoman Megan Weiss-Rowe replied by email that the opinions would not be made public. Weiss-Rowe said that the plan to issue written decisions was reversed after Kingston Corporation Counsel Kevin Bryant told commissioners that the plan would run afoul of state civil service law pertaining to uniformed employees. In an email, Weiss-Rowe explained that the Civil Service Law section in question, 50(a), mandates confidentiality of all “personnel records used to evaluate performance towards continued employment or promotion.” The records must remain sealed unless the employee in question agrees to their release or they are ordered unsealed by court order.

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On Monday, Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said he was not part of the discussion between Bryant and Noble, but confirmed that the written opinion policy would not go into effect. Tinti also acknowledged that absent a written opinion, there was no way for people who filed complaints of police abuse to learn the reasoning behind the commission’s decisions or even the names of officers disciplined.

“I understand some members of the public will be upset with that,” said Tinti. “But until the law changes there is no method to release that information.”

While the reasoning behind the Police Commission’s verdicts will remain shrouded, the decisions themselves are public. Last month’s review of four misconduct complaints produced a mixed bag or results. Just one of the complaints, filed by Adrin Brodhead, resulted in discipline for officers involved. On July 20, 2017, Brodhead, 24, was walking home from work carrying an open container of beer in a paper bag when he was stopped for questioning by police. Brodhead claimed that he was tased, pepper-sprayed and tackled to the ground when he questioned an officer’s command to place his hands behind his back. The incident was caught on a police dashboard camera and a mobile phone carried by Brodhead’s friend. The commission voted unanimously to recommend that an officer involved in the incident receive “command discipline.” That term refers to the lowest level of disciplinary action against an officer, with sanctions ranging from a letter of censure placed in the officer’s personnel file to the loss of accrued time off.

In the case of Fabian Marshall, who was tackled and repeatedly tased after he turned away from an officer during a 2015 field interview, the complaint was tabled until more information is available. The commission also voted not to recommend discipline for officers involved in the arrest of 17-year-old Aleesa Jordan back on Nov. 15, 2017. Jordan was arrested after she allegedly intervened as officers were handcuffing a friend while investigating a trespassing complaint near Kingston High School. Aleesa’s mother, Lisa Royer, claimed that her daughter suffered a sprained wrist and facial abrasions during the incident. A fourth compliant filed by city resident Joe LaLima was tabled pending further evidence. A fifth filed by Helen Hilje was dismissed for lack of evidence. Details of LaLima and Hilje’s complaints were not immediately available.

In his State of the City address Tuesday night, Noble spoke of the need to enhance police community relations and pledged to support a state-level effort to pass a “right to know” law that requires police in non-emergency situations to identify themselves and explain why they have stopped a citizen. Noble added that he wanted to work with the Common Council to repeal “punitive” sections of the city code, like a requirement that bicycles be registered, that frequently lead to friction between cops and the community. After the speech, Noble said he hoped people would recognize his administration’s commitment to better police-community relations.

“If we’re going to continue to build trust in the community, there has to be some trust put into the office of the mayor, the police commission and the chief of police,” said Noble. “It’s hard. I wish we could give more information. So do the officers involved in some of these cases. We just have to continue to have a dialogue.”

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