It’s hard to feel sorry for local police chiefs worried about loss of contract protection when municipalities in the state are dealing with difficult budget problems.
In 2011, as part of mandate relief, the State Legislature repealed a section of the General Municipal Law known as 207-m, which tied raises for police chiefs to those received by union officers.
The repeal of that section means that municipalities will finally be able to regain some control over pay and benefits for current police chiefs. That is exactly what Hamburg is attempting to do, but the effort has created a firestorm among police chiefs.
Eight local chiefs showed up at the Hamburg Town Board meeting last week in support of Police Chief Michael K. Williams. Last month, Hamburg’s board voted 2-1 to terminate Williams’ contract and essentially start over with negotiating a new one. His current contract paid Williams $161,000, including a base salary of $126,100, a longevity payment of $15,100, $15,500 in double time for 16 holidays, $3,800 in compensation for switching from a four-day week to five days, and a stipend of $500.
Mayors of cities such as Buffalo can hire their choice for police commissioner, but towns and villages statewide are very restricted as to who they can hire. Under New York State civil service law, the chief is chosen from a list of people in the police department who have taken a test, similar to the sergeant’s exam. It’s a multiple-choice exam and one of the top three must be chosen. There are no educational requirements.
The “contract” covers only pay and benefits. It’s not an employment agreement. Practically speaking, after passing a six-month probationary period, town and village chiefs have the post for as long as they want it. They are essentially chiefs for life.
In most states, the police chief is a department head recruited for the job by the village or town.
New York’s bizarre system should be revised so that police chiefs are treated like other department heads who can be recruited, hired and fired by the municipality. If the chief is not doing a good job, the town finds someone else. That’s the way the rest of the country works.
The repeal of 207-m, especially the way it linked the pay of chiefs and rank-and-file officers, is a welcome change. If village or town leaders are not satisfied with the performance of a chief, and under state civil law can’t get rid of the person, at least they now have some leverage not to reward poor performance.
The chiefs argue that the change means they could end up making less than their subordinates. That may be true, but if money is the reason they want to be chief, maybe they aren’t the right person for the job. There are many examples of department heads making less than subordinates, but non-monetary rewards make up for that. Especially if you’re chief for life.