New York’s highest court has agreed to consider a bid by Rochester City Council to give the city’s Police Accountability Board power to discipline Rochester Police Department officers.
The decision by the Court of Appeals to hear the case comes three years after the city passed a law creating the board. It also follows two lower court rulings that went against City Council, whose creation of the board has been challenged by the RPD patrol officers’ union, the Rochester Police Locust Club.
The case dates to a lawsuit filed by the Locust Club shortly after the law’s 2019 adoption. In that court action, the RPD union won twice, first securing an order from State Supreme Court Justice John Ark invalidating the provision of the city’s local law that gave the newly created board authority to discipline RPD officers and later winning again in the state’s mid-level court, the Appellate Division Fourth Department.
Putting police disciplinary matters in the hands of the locally created and authorized board would improperly preempt state civil service law, giving the locally authorized board a power that under New York law should be wielded by the city’s policer chief, Ark found in his May 2020 ruling.
Last June, a Fourth Department panel found some of Ark’s reasoning to be erroneous but unanimously upheld the lower court judge’s finding that City Council overstepped its bounds in giving the board disciplinary authority over city police officers.
Council attorney Andrew Celli Jr., a partner with the New York City firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, called the high court’s decision to hear the appeal “a critical step in upholding the will of Rochester’s voters to create and empower a strong Police Accountability Board.”
The case’s outcome could largely hinge on the question of whether the Court of Appeals finds that city is entitled to an exception to the state’s Public Employees Fair Employment Act granted to some other police departments. A 1967 statute known as the Taylor Law, the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, lays out terms for the state’s treatment of civil service workers.
At a legal level, says Celli, the Court of Appeals willingness to reconsider the lower courts’ rulings “gives the Council the opportunity to demonstrate that history, law, and Court of Appeals precedents all fully support the City’s power to control its police officers, and that the PAB is a lawful exercise of that power.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.