A recently minted activist group is calling on the Kingston Common Council to hold off approval for any new police contract that fails to include new language governing drug and alcohol testing for officers, and indemnification for cops’ off-duty actions.
Kingston police officers have been working without a contract for over a year; Mayor Steve Noble is currently in negotiations on a new pact. Previous contract negotiations in recent years have revolved around pay, benefits and staffing issues. But the local activist group Rise Up Kingston wants Noble and the council to address elements of the contract that they say impede efforts to bring more transparency and accountability to the department.
Rise Up Kingston co-founder Cassandra Burke compared the most recent Kingston PBA contract to labor agreements governing cops in Poughkeepsie and Hudson and found some key differences that she believes should be addressed.
In a position paper on the issue, Burke called for a series of changes to the labor agreement, including a new drug and alcohol testing policy. Current department policy prohibits any testing for alcohol “except as may be provided otherwise by a specific statute.” Random drug testing may be ordered at the discretion of the chief of police, with the provision that no officer may be subjected to a drug test more than three times in a nine-month period “in the absence of reasonable suspicion.”
Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said the department uses a Poughkeepsie-based company to carry out drug testing of officers based on randomly generated names. Tinti added the department also has the ability to test for alcohol, based on “reasonable suspicion.”
“If a guy walks into work and he smells like alcohol, we can follow up on that,” said Tinti.
Burke’s paper calls for replacement of the drug and alcohol testing policy with a more detailed one culled from the City of Poughkeepsie’s contract. The proposed change would require both drug and alcohol testing anytime an officer discharges their firearm on duty, is involved in an accident in a police vehicle that causes injury to an officer or civilian, or is involved in a vehicle chase leading to a serious accident. The policy also lays in detail how the testing will be carried out. For example, employees must be given 30 minutes notice of an alcohol test and any blood alcohol content above 0.0 will be considered a positive result.
“As it is now, if you crash your car on duty, you’re not getting breathalyzed,” said Burke. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Burke’s proposal also takes aim at another section of the Kingston PBA contract that provides officers indemnification in civil suits and other protections. Currently, the contract says the city’s insurance will cover officers for any action taken in the performance of their duties that does not involve a “willful and wrongful act or gross negligence.” Burke’s proposal would replace the clause with language from the City of Hudson’s police contract that provides indemnification only for officers acting “within the scope of their authority and in the proper performance of their duties.”
Burke’s paper further calls for replacement of a clause that protects off-duty officers from civil suits and provides them with workers’ compensation benefits for injuries incurred off-duty if they are taking an action that would be expected of an on-duty officer. The clause recognizes that police officers have a duty to respond to emergency situations whether on- or off-duty. But Burke said the vague wording of the contract could potentially let police officers off the hook for a range of inappropriate off-duty behavior. She’s proposed replacing the clause with another section from the City Of Poughkeepsie contract that lays out more clear guidelines and definitions of off duty police actions.
“It’s really giving officers carte blanche,” said Burke. “It says you can do anything that a cop might do on duty and be fully indemnified.”
The push comes as activist groups like Rise Up Kingston are making a major push for police reform in the city. The pressure has led to a few changes in department policy, but Burke said more meaningful reforms have been blocked by contract provisions.
“It became clear that the police commission process can only control so much because so much is controlled by the contract,” said Burke, who studied public policy at the University of Albany. “If you want to make changes that stick, you’ve got to look at that contract.”
Kingston PBA President Barry Rell declined to discuss Burke’s proposal. In an email Rell said that the union would not negotiate with outside parties.
Noble also declined to discuss the ongoing talks with the PBA, citing negotiation protocol. Noble said he had discussed some of Burke’s concerns with Tinti and, he believed, at least some of her proposals were already covered in the current contract.
“We feel like a lot of this already covered,” said Noble. “And if there are things that are not covered, I would be open to having a discussion about them moving forward.”
Burke, meanwhile, is calling on the Kingston Common Council to refuse to sign off on any future contract that does not address the concerns raised in her paper. Doing so, she said, would eventually create an economic incentive for the PBA to negotiate the operational issues since they will not receive any pay raises until a new contract is approved.
Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress said that the council had to perform more “due diligence” on the issue before he could take a position on Burke’s concerns. Scott-Childress added that the council would also have to weigh whether to put a new contract on hold or address issues in a future negotiation.
“The question is whether or not these issues rise to a pitch of requiring an immediate resolution as opposed to some longer-term rethinking,” said Scott-Childress.