Environmental Cops Clash With Chiefs
By REUVEN BLAU
The union that represents the city's Environmental Police Officers has delivered a vote of "no confidence" in the department's two top chiefs, contending that their policy decisions have endangered the health and safety of officers and the public.
"The turnover rate in the ranks of the DEP Police remains the highest of any city department and it directly affects the safety of New York City's water supply," a letter drafted by the officers asserted.
|KENNETH WYNDER: A reservoir of problems. |
DEP Denies Problem
The 156 DEP Police Officers, who are represented by the newly created Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Association (LEEBA), protect the city's water supply, which includes an area of 1,972 square miles in the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson Valley and large reservoirs in Yonkers and The Bronx.
A spokesman for DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd once again defended its staffing levels, asserting that the agency has more than quadrupled the size of the watershed cop division since 2002 and has added several new specialized units. In 2004, DEP said that the size of the police force had increased during the previous two years from 75 to 219.
But the officers delivered a vote of "no confidence" in Chief Edward Welch and Assistant Chief Mark Benedetto, arguing that they "utilize intimidation, retaliation, and unauthorized disciplinary actions instead of leadership to control the members of the command."
|EMILY LLOYD: Cites staff buildup. |
The union charged that they have created security risks by understaffing sensitive areas, failing to equip officers protecting key locations, and hiring less-skilled private guards.
Many of the new civil service officers DEP hired have since left in search of better pay, said Steve Whittick, a DEP Police Officer and union delegate. More than 20 of the 43 officers who were part of his academy class three years ago have since resigned, he noted.
According to LEEBA President Kenneth Wynder, DEP is supplanting its regular staff by employing 256 private officers, provided by FJC Security Services Inc. The FJC officers are likely not subjected to random drug tests or background screenings, Mr. Wynder said.
The retention problem has left staffing levels dangerously low, he added. The starting salary for DEP cops is $25,631 for their first 26 weeks in training, at which point it goes to $29,405. The pay rises to $30,355 after one year, but the maximum salary is $44,742 for officers after six years on the job.
LEEBA is currently seeking similar benefits and wages to what the city's other law-enforcement unions have negotiated this round of bargaining. The contract talks appear to be tied to two major pending grievances concerning overtime payments and the use of the private security officers.
Currently, DEP cops work 171 hours within a 28-day cycle. Officers who work beyond that minimum receive time-and-a-half overtime wages. But the department has recently restarted the cycle every time an officer takes a day off, a sick day, or misses time due to an injury. "We want them to change the policy," Mr. Wynder has said.
The union has also filed a complaint with the Board of Collective Bargaining arguing that DEP has violated the group's collective bargaining agreement by hiring private security officers to do DEP Police work.
DEP spokesman Ian Michaels maintained that the security of the city's water supply is a high priority. "That is why we have made a huge investment in the DEP police," he said in a statement. "DEP has invested over $120 million in facilities and equipment to improve the effectiveness of the DEP Police, including the construction of five new precincts and two new training centers."
But Mr. Whittick, who works upstate at the Shokan Reservoir, questioned how useful the training is when officers are supplied with old and faulty cars and radios. "Officers suffer from inadequate equipment to perform their duties," his letter to members stated. "Emergency vehicles are not properly maintained and used until they no longer pass New York State inspections."
The department declined to discuss the union's specific allegations, but has maintained that it plans to expand the use of new gear, such as closed-circuit and infrared video cameras and intrusion detection systems.
The watershed cops have also complained about the
department's new radios, which they say don't work properly. "Radio
communications, instead of being a top priority, are a safety issue," the LEEBA
letter said. "Communication is so poor that officers rely on other agencies and
their personal cell phones to transmit and receive information."