‘Frustrated’ union, Auburn police chief clash over training, equipment and other issues

The crumbling walls of the Auburn Police Department building house an organization that may have its own internal issues.

As officers are working as hard as ever, on pace to respond to more than 30,000 service calls this year, police union leaders believe potential public safety issues exist as the uncertain futures of various police assets linger.

These assets include the disbanded Emergency Response Team, what the union considers an office “in absolute disrepair” and a K-9 force halved, to one, by retirement.

Internally, union leaders say training opportunities have not been available to every officer because of financial decisions by management. A partial byproduct of these training disputes has been about a dozen grievances filed by officers against the department over the last six months.

These grievances, policy decisions and funding priorities ultimately fall to APD Chief Brian Neagle.

But as officials explore options toward addressing the affected resources — including a new public safety building — Neagle said he has been assured his department is running smoothly.

It was during an April budget meeting when Auburn City Councilor Debby McCormick asked Neagle a question he and other city officials have been unwilling to answer, at least publicly, until days ago.

She asked how much is in the police department’s cache of funds accrued through drug seizure operations. These funds are available through the federal Asset Forfeiture Program, which allocates an annual allotment of funds derived from drug seizure assets to state and local enforcement agencies.

After three months without an answer, the city responded last week to a Freedom of Information Law request from The Citizen, which revealed the Auburn Police Department has access to two Asset Forfeiture accounts, one with $262,125.86 and another with $169,481.20 as of June 30, 2015.

Using these funds is at the chief’s discretion, and that discretion has clashed directly with the opinions of union leaders.

Neagle said the department has recently used the forfeiture funds to buy a new evidence inventory system and is exploring the possibility of purchasing a prisoner transport vehicle. Without disclosing specifics, city officials said additional funds have also gone toward overtime for officers engaged in drug enforcement activities and building improvements.

However, the union argues that this money should go toward funding to bring back the department’s Emergency Response Team.

The 15-man team operated much like a SWAT team in high-leverage situations, such as active shooter events. The squad was disbanded by officials months ago due to obsolete equipment — outdated tactical vests and ballistics helmets — as well as an inadequate training schedule.

City Manager Doug Selby said the city has continued to consider options to fund approximately $33,000 for new equipment and around $20,000 in annual training costs. The situation is a balancing act between tight budgets and funding essential assets, which starts with the patrol officers and then extends to the specialized units like the response team, Selby opined.

Nevertheless, city officials have said their options do not include using Asset Forfeiture funds.

Neagle has insisted the money can only be used to enhance a department’s programs, not replace items previously funded through the city’s budget. At this point, Selby agrees with that determination after conferencing with representatives from the Drug Enforcement Administration, but said he would like to investigate further.

Meanwhile, Corporation Counsel John Rossi said federal law is quite clear in this regard.

“This expenditure is prohibited and not permitted due to the fact that the City budgeted and paid for the original purchase of the vests and if they have become outdated and not capable of being used, the City still has a responsibility of replacing those items from its budget as was done originally,” he said in his written response to the Freedom of Information request for fund details.

The union, however, continues to disagree.

Joe Villano, president of the New York Finger Lakes Region Local 195, claims other law enforcement agencies have used these funds to purchase Emergency Response Team equipment and maintain their teams. This comes as the union, he said, has made certain concessions with training compensation to get the team back online.

“This (Asset Forfeiture) Fund is available because of the hard work and dedication our own members put forth working drug cases under extremely dangerous circumstances,” he said. “Many of these cases were successful in part to the effective deployment of our ERT.”

A representative from the Department of Justice appears to lean in favor of the union’s perspective.

Peter Carr, DOJ public affairs specialist, said agencies may purchase permissible equipment using Asset Forfeiture funds even if it was previously budgeted.

“The provisions regarding supplantation do not implicate specific line item purchases, but rather look to overall budget allocations,” he said. “As long as the budget of this agency was not reduced because of equitable sharing receipts, and the chief wants to use his funding in this manner, the Justice Department would not see a problem with this type of expenditure.”

The city will not disclose specific items purchased through the Asset Forfeiture Fund, stating that public disclosure would interfere with law enforcement investigations and techniques, among other reasons.

Likewise, documents released by the federal Department of Justice, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, showed an APD Asset Forfeiture account started the 2014 fiscal year with nearly $272,000. The department spent $11,739 on overtime and around $3,400 on undisclosed “other law enforcement expenses.”

The Citizen has appealed the DOJ’s decision to not disclose the itemized list of other law enforcement expenses.

City officials have not responded to FOIL requests for APD overtime records as well as correspondence between the city and federal agencies pertaining to the Asset Forfeiture Program. An appeal of the non-action has gone without a formal response for 34 business days.

Additionally, the city declined a FOIL request to disclose union grievance records concerning department policies and procedures. A subsequent appeal for the grievance information has remained unanswered for 23 business days.

State FOIL regulations require a response to an appeal in 10 business days.

Villano said the union has filed around 12 grievances against the APD since the new leadership was elected in May.

These grievances, he said, pertain to concerns with member compensation as according to the union contract.

City officials, however, believe the grievances may be a product of new perspective.

“I think in part it can be explained by the new union leadership interpreting the contract differently from the previous union leadership,” Neagle said.

Nevertheless, one grievance — a time clock dispute — is still pending and will require arbitration, Villano said. The city manager said the subject of these grievances range from disciplinary to department issues.

The apparent disconnect between upper management and its police force extends to union concerns over training policies.

Union leaders cite a specific example: An active shooter training was conducted in August at Auburn High School, but the union claims only half of its membership was given the opportunity to attend.

“No specific reasons were given to us as to why every member wasn’t included in this specific training session,” Villano said.

Naturally, departmental training sessions are monitored by Neagle. Selby, who is not intimate with the situation, said he needs to investigate further.

For the August training, Neagle said the department conducted a non-mandatory training, scheduling of which was coordinated with school officials.

The APD trained “as many officers as possible,” he said, within the available four-day window, which amounted to 30 officers. Neagle said the department has spoken with school officials to schedule more training for the remainder of the officers.

The chief said he is not aware of any other training concerns as union leaders also take issue with a separate matter: the APD’s K-9 force.

The department has only one police dog at its disposal following the retirement of another dog this past September.

When the union steward brought these collective concerns to the mayor, Villano said he was later issued a “counseling memorandum” from Neagle for speaking out. The memorandum, he described, is meant as a corrective measure, not a formal discipline.

The city manager, Villano said, later “determined that the counseling memo was not appropriate in this case” and removed it from Villano’s file. The state’s Taylor Law offers certain protective measures to union leaders from employers. Selby declined to comment on the counseling memorandum.

Villano said all of the issues have created frustration within the department.

“We’ve recently retired a K-9 Unit that has not been replaced. The ERT has been disbanded. Vital training has not been provided to every officer, presumably because of overtime issues. Everyone has not been provided with an equitable training opportunity, which creates potential safety issues. Our office is in absolute disrepair,” he said.

“I think it’s a fair statement to say that our membership is frustrated with these issues and would like to see them addressed sooner than later.”

Neagle said city officials are still assessing both the K-9 situation and the degrading police headquarters, the latter of which may require the construction of a new facility.

Despite the union concerns, Neagle said he does not see a morale problem within the department.

“Through my casual contact with the officers and the meetings that I have had, I have not observed anything out of the ordinary,” Neagle said. “I also quite frequently survey my captains who are in charge of the different divisions and they have brought no concerns to my attention.”

Frustration with Neagle has boiled over in a public way on social media.

Anonymously sourced social media postings were first noticed around two months ago. Several users began posting photos to the social media accounts of local officials, local news sources and national news media, such as The Citizen, the city of Auburn, Syracuse.com, the New York Times and New York Daily News.

Those photos depict newspaper clippings from The Citizen dating back to 1996 concerning Neagle’s conduct as an officer before he became chief 16 years later. In 1996, Neagle was suspended while under investigation for a criminal mischief incident.

As that story unfolded, he was also accused of failing to disclose prior arrests on his application to join the APD and making racially and culturally insensitive remarks while on duty.

The social media posters have also been critical of Neagle’s departmental financial decisions, though several posts have since been deleted. Rossi said some of this material, including postings about the Asset Forfeiture Fund, was obviously received from an “inside” source.

“Whomever has disseminated this information is obviously ignorant of the rules set by the United States Department of Justice and their information is false and the false statements used to criticize the Auburn Police Department are out of order,” he said.

Selby, who said he is not one for Twitter and Facebook, does not put any stock into the postings.

He reiterated that Neagle’s past record was considered when Selby hired him as chief. Since that hiring, Selby said he vetted three related anonymous complaints that amounted to nothing.

“Whatever happened 25 years ago, I don’t consider that substantive to now,” he said. “In my opinion, he’s been a good chief.”