ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A Hudson Valley town urged New York's highest court on Thursday to uphold the town's authority to discipline police for misbehavior instead of turning cases over to an independent arbitrator under terms of a union contract.
In a case with possible implications for municipal police statewide, Wallkill officials maintain they have that authority, similar to New York City and Rockland County, under earlier statutes that supersede the state's Taylor Law. The Taylor Law says police discipline provisions can be set by collective bargaining.
"There's a public policy favoring the strong control of police forces, or there's not," Joseph McKay, the town's attorney, told the Court of Appeals. He said a midlevel court recently ruled that the city of Middletown, inside Wallkill's boundaries, couldn't negotiate police discipline terms as a matter of public policy.
John Crotty, lawyer for the Wallkill Police Benevolent Association, warned against upsetting public sector labor relations and union contracts established over decades under New York's Taylor Law.
"I can't overstate the significance," he said.
Court papers cited more than 1,600 towns, villages and cities that could be affected.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said that police constitute a paramilitary group, asking whether it isn't good policy and makes sense for the municipalities that hire officers to determine their discipline and hold them responsible, rather than arbitration or collective bargaining.
"That policy choice should be made by the Legislature," Crotty said. "They are the repository of the public policy."
The Court of Appeals ruling is expected next month.
The Wallkill case involves apparently contradictory state statutes, in this case provisions of the Taylor Law and New York's Town Law. It follows the top court's 2006 ruling that the New York City police commissioner has discipline authority not subject to union bargaining, as do local officials in Rockland County, under two other statutes.
"We hold that police discipline may not be a subject of collective bargaining under the Taylor Law when the Legislature has expressly committed disciplinary authority over a police department to local officials," the Court of Appeals concluded then.
Crotty argued that was based on two special laws, while the Town Law cited in this case is a general statute.
The Wallkill Town Board in 2007 passed a new local law on disciplining police, where the town supervisor appoints a hearing officer to determine guilt or innocence and punishment. In seven subsequent disciplinary cases, ranging from issues over paperwork to use of police power, the union sued, seeking to have the cases handled by arbitration instead of as their negotiated contract provides. One case was settled; the others are still pending, according to court papers.
A judge said the local law was invalid, but a midlevel court concluded last year that Wallkill officials have disciplinary authority through the underlying Town Law, and the matter cannot be governed by collective bargaining.
After Thursday's arguments, McKay questioned how widespread the court ruling's impact would be, saying he was unaware of any other towns that have passed similar local laws to take over police discipline.
Municipalities have issues with officers with lengthy records of infractions, including some that have gotten a town or village sued, McKay said.
"Still, even though the town board and the town supervisor is responsible for that person, they can't discipline him. It's always ultimately decided by someone else," he said.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)