DEP Police getting shortchanged by NYC

By Jennifer Kabat
Living in New York City’s watershed, it can be hard to find sympathy for the City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Cops when people have “DEP get off my back” bumper stickers on their cars, the scars of having land taken by eminent domain still seem fresh, and the city is always trying to buck their property tax assessments.

The DEP police are often the agency’s most visual representatives – the white cars, the green graphics and uniforms… Then, there’s the way the officers can be dismissed as “toy cops” and a “joke” – alongside complaints of “no taxation without representation.” To many just having a NYC police force here feels like a colonial power exercising undue influence. But, the DEP police are suffering at the hands of the city as much as – and sometimes more than –others. It’s a David and Goliath story (so far David hasn’t won either) that entails complex labor law, terrorism, poor morale, an Upstate/Downstate divide and a secret report the DEP will barely even acknowledge exists.

Pay rate is stalled
DEP Police haven’t had a pay rise since 2004, and they have been without a contract for seven years, spending the last two of them in arbitration. Now the city has petitioned the state supreme court to get the arbitrator’s recommendations thrown out – all because the city doesn’t believe it should have to issue a 53-month contract, according to the DEP police union’s lawyers.

Meanwhile, during all this time the police have had little recourse to challenge the city. They can’t strike because, according to the state, they’re police. The city, however, only recognizes them as having civilian status, puzzling, given that the DEP officers carry guns, can arrest people and have had their authority to do this affirmed in the courts.

The force includes divisions like K-9, detectives, marine patrol, aviation and an ESU (a swat team which was deployed in Arkville during the Travis Trimm standoff). Officers have received specialized training at the US Marshalls Academy in Glynco, Georgia, while the force has their own dedicated police academy in Kingston. The one thing the troops are not allowed to do anymore (for those liking to speed on watershed roads): issue traffic tickets.

Lack of power
While potentially popular, one EPO, that is an environmental police officer as the DEP cops are known, says it leaves them powerless.

“They took away our radar units in 2004, even though many of us were still radar certified. By doing that we lost a tool that could be instrumental in making a traffic stop that turns out to reveal a terrorist, or a wanted person,” he said.

The city watershed has had a police or security detail since they started building dams. Those officers were and often still are from local families. These are men and women who live here, raise their kids here, spend their money here. The tenor of the force started changing around 2000 with the EPA’s enforcing the Clean Water Act and the Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD).

Many elements of that agreement are familiar to local communities where the city is stipulated to build sewage plants in Catskills’ towns and buy up as much land as possible to protect the water quality. All this was a bid to avoid building a costly filtration plant the city says it could never afford. The FAD led to the establishment of the Catskill Watershed Corporation, which helps people pay to replace septic systems and also provides funds to invest in local businesses. There is one other element of the FAD: police. The city promised the EPA a better force to protect the reservoirs. In 2001 meeting this demand changed the force drastically. Officers were now Environmental Police Officers. Their duties and training were increased. Recruits were, for the first time, given a civil service exam and background checks and sent to the police academy. In fact, they were given the exact same exam given to the NYPD recruits and the very same background and financial checks though the DEP police get none of the NYPD’s rights or protections.

The officers also had no contract that recognized them as police. They were represented by a civilian union – and the DEP police’s current union LEEBA alleges that state and city labor laws were broken. According to state and city statutes, the job reclassification meant the DEP officers had to be compared to other workers in the city doing the same or similar work and get the same or similar pay. The only other police force NYC has? The NYPD. LEEBA’s head Kenneth Wynder insists the jobs were never compared, that there was a backroom pact not to. True or not, the officers certainly aren’t paid what NYPD is. DEP officers get about half of what NYPD and the state police receive. The DEP force has no pension and suffers from city foot dragging and tactics that might sound familiar to many here. With teams of lawyers in tow, the city has successfully challenged its property tax assessments, wiggling out of paying school tax in upstate towns. Or, in Margaretville, NYC has argued down the assessment for the wastewater treatment plant by half.

To be fair, the DEP force is small and complex, only on average 180-odd officers. Based in Yonkers and New York City and the Catskills, they fall between the cracks of upstate and down, civilian and police – issues that have seemingly given the city the excuse to shove them around and ignore them. The force is largely out of sight in the city where few even know if the DEP is a city or state agency and don’t realize it has a police force let alone all this land upstate. And, here people have little sympathy. Even in 2000 the EPA was advising the DEP to have their police force meet with local communities to explain their mandate and ease tensions.

In reporting this, the News approached several NYC agencies including the DEP and the Office of Labor Relations, the agency tasked with negotiating with the police union, for comment. None of them would. The most anyone would say is that they can’t comment until the court case is resolved and sighed, “We hope it is soon.” Officials also said off the record that this is a tricky situation. “The city has many unions, and they’re all watching.”

There is also one even bigger problem for the police: DEP officers get no line of duty pay. All other police in New York State are protected if they’re injured on the job, meaning their position and pay is protected and their medical costs covered. Not DEP officers like Ed Klan who was driving to a home where shots had been fire on an icy night and had a rollover accident that pinned him in his car. He had to refinance his house to pay his medical costs. Or, take Officer Eric Hoffman who, three years ago, was chasing two suspects in an ATV and rolled over. He was on a ventilator for three weeks with injuries to both lungs, collarbone, pelvis, broken arm and a fractured skull. Adding insult to his multiple injuries, he has just had to resign from the force because his injuries prevent him from doing his job.

The specifics of what no line of duty pay means are explained in stark detail by union head Wynder:
“An officer hurt today would first have to exhaust all of his leave time he has banked, then he requests a three-month grant of additional leave that he has to pay back when he returns to work.” By paying back, Wynder means literally paying back, “They take a portion out of your check every two weeks.” After the three-month grant if an officer still can’t return to duty, he says, “The officer goes on leave without pay and applies for workers comp, which will be based on his salary. If an officer just entered job, he won’t have time and will be in trouble. After a year of leave without pay, you’re terminated. Also during leave you lose your benefits so you can’t be treated.” Which is why Klan had to refinance his house.

Line of duty pay is an essential assurance of police work. Without it, who would want to protect a bank being robbed? Or, as union vice president DEP police Sergeant Joseph Andreani says about his own officers in Yonkers, “If they saw a bunch of terrorists jumping a fence with a backpack and C4 and machine guns, why would an officer put his life on the line? I’d fully expect him to hightail it out of there.”

To put it in a context an officer is more likely to find upstate, who would want to enforce trespassing laws in hunting season? There’s the chance of meeting a stray bullet or an angry hunter with a gun, an angry hunter with a gun who already feels the DEP has little or no authority. These trespassing violations, though, are just the sort of statutes the city still wants its officers to enforce.

The city has a morale problem, to say the least. Officers already have poor motivation and high attrition rates, both of which were problems the EPA commented on back in 2000. Now eight years without a pay hike has exacerbated the problem. Add to that the repeated broken promises for a new contract. In the last year alone they were promised one first in the autumn, then by Christmas, then New Year, then come May…. Officers are at the end of their rope. In reporting this story the News has heard from ones thinking of changing careers, going back to school, leaving for other forces, anything but the DEP. Losing officers is also expensive for the city. Each officer who leaves (and in the last three weeks there have been nine who have—a big number for a department of 180 people) costs the city around $50-$100,000, union representatives estimate. That includes the partial pay recruits get while at the academy for seven months as well as the academy itself (built in 2004), so infrastructure costs and instructors and equipment.

This all leaves the watershed vulnerable. One officer downstate said, “I can show you where half the cameras are out and we can all scale the fence and go swimming in the Yonkers Reservoir. That is treated water going straight to faucets in the city.” Another in one of the upstate precincts said, “They have cameras on us everywhere in our precinct house, but none on the dam. That sends a really bad message. They don’t pay us and they don’t trust us while the dam is vulnerable.” The implicit message is that the system is open for terrorism

Because the watershed and its reservoir system are so vast and seem so tranquil, it can be hard to imagine an actual threat. Reputedly the Ashokan Reservoir was second on the list of targets for the 1993 World Trade Center attackers, and when Bin Laden was killed, the list of targets found in his possessions were said to include trains, water supply systems and dams. The last two suggest New York City’s would have to be high on that list. You don’t have to poison the water either, which is nearly impossible. One DEP officer said, “I can take you to places where you could take out 100 percent of the water supply to the city with one backpack and one gun. That would shut down the sewers and sprinkler systems in buildings, so no one could be in skyscrapers because anything over three stories requires sprinklers. You couldn’t fight fires. The city –” as the officer put it bluntly, “would become a ghost town.” It’s scenarios like this that caused the Ashokan’s spillway road to be closed to traffic in 2001.

In frustration several officers are applying for whistleblower status with the EPA. “We had guys coming in saying we’re here to clean up a hydrochloride spill,” one officer explains. “You’d ask them a question and they’d say very quickly, ‘yeah yeah, oh it’s just a couple gallons.’ Because the city wants these things un- or underreported. They don’t want stories like that getting out to the EPA like happened with mercury releases.”

The employee who reported the mercury issues – not a police officer but a maintenance worker – says after he cooperated with the EPA and FBI, he was made to cool his heels in an office with no windows, no phone, nothing for eight hours a day. This is a strategy the city also uses on teachers they want to get rid of, putting them in what’s called a “rubber room,” where officials can essentially make an employee suffer enough to resign without breaking employment agreements.

Then, there’s the mystery report. Commissioned by Emily Lloyd when she headed the agency, the Dennis Smith Report was written by a public policy professor at NYU. Having analyzed the NYPD after 9/11. He was hired to assess the DEP police force and potential problems in the watershed including terrorism. Some have read a redacted version; New York City Councilman Peter Vallone was allowed to read it in his office. The report was apparently brought in by guards who also had to take it away with them when he finished. According to Wynder, the report includes lines like, “A 7-11 is better protected than the watershed.” He also says the report discusses that the force is too small and morale dangerously low, while poor pay, lack of respect and lack of a contract make the city vulnerable. The union’s lawyer Richard Merritt says, “If something did happen, you can bet that report will be at the forefront and under scrutiny.” He’s petitioning to make it public as part of counter petition to be heard by state supreme court on July 27. Will we ever find out what it says? Probably not any time soon. New York City has already filed for another 45-day delay in proceedings.

It’s no wonder that Joseph Andreani, union VP and DEP police sergeant, is taking matters into his own hands. A Brooklyn resident, he’s stopped paying his water bill. “It’s issued by the same office that pays me. Each month it comes, I refuse to pay. It’s my own small personal protest.”