Cortland officials, city police MOU a ‘show of good faith’ in contract negotiations (video)

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was recently unanimously approved by the Cortland Common council that would set a fixed shift schedule for city police officers.

The MOU will also increase the number of officers on patrol. Police department and city officials collectively see it as a “morale booster,” and a move to increase the safety of officers and city residents.

The MOU changes the rotating shift schedule to a permanent fixed schedule, which typically features a minimum of three police officers on patrol and one at the desk. 

According to the MOU, the way shifts and two consecutive days off are assigned is based on seniority. The MOU also removes a provision in the Cortland police department’s acting labor contract that requires one officer to be seated at the desk during shifts.

“The uniformed division patrols have wanted to go to a permanent shift schedule for several years. There are studies that show the negative impacts of a continual rotation of shifts on people’s physical and mental health,” Cortland police chief Paul Sandy recently told The Cortland Voice. “Your body clock is changing and altering, and (the rotation of shifts) interrupts sleep and eating patterns.”

The change to the new schedule could also have an impact on the officers’ family life.

“In terms of the social impact, (shift rotation) disrupts your family life immensely,” Sandy said. “The permanent shift schedule will benefit our officers. It’ll keep them healthier and more alert because they are used to a certain pattern. Morale will be much better.”

At the Jan. 4 Common Council meeting, city mayor Scott Steve noted the contents of the MOU were “long overdue” items.

“This MOU is to the wellbeing of the police officers and won’t create an extra burden on their time,” he said. “It is a pretty important thing to do.”

Members of the council also spoke in support of the MOU.

“(This MOU) will bring better policing for our community as a whole,” said councilperson Seth Thompson (D-5th Ward).

Sandy also noted he expects the department to make a public announcement within the coming weeks surrounding the desk officer position. He said years ago the position was essential. However, since most service calls go through Cortland County’s 911 dispatch center, the role of desk duty officers is now more geared toward helping the arraignment of detained individuals.

“The (desk duty officer) became more of a jailer than a police officer because they were watching individuals waiting for arraignment,” he said. He added that state reforms to the bail system have largely done away with those responsibilities. “We have an officer sitting on a desk and that is a waste of training, and that officer is a body we could put out on the road. That is extra backup, so having them out there increases the safety of our officers.”

Sandy said the extra personnel would also give the department the ability to be proactive in policing.

“It increases our ability to be proactive because we will have more people on the street,” he said. “We can start doing more. Calls for service will be answered more rapidly and safer because we have more people out there. It’s all a huge morale booster to our people.”

Last year, the Cortland Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and the former mayoral administration were engaged in negotiations with the hopes of hashing out terms for a new labor agreement. This was part of a process to negotiate labor agreements with the City of Cortland Fire Department, Police Department, and the wastewater plant laborers’ unions, former city mayor Brian Tobin told The Cortland Voice

Tobin said negotiations with the PBA went on for the majority of 2021 and included a mediating, impartial third party, but ultimately both sides did not come to an agreement on a new deal.

Sandy said while unable to discuss contract negotiations, the contents of the MOU had been previously discussed by the city and police representatives.

“Attempts at the MOU were made with the prior administration, but it was not going to happen,” he said.

In an interview with The Cortland Voice on Dec. 31, Steve said he had been working with members of the PBA and Cortland Police Department on the MOU while he was the mayor-elect. It effectively granted the fixed shift schedule and the removal of the desk duty officer requirement. 

“I wrote up the MOU. I wrote up what I wanted to say, what I wanted to do,” Steve said. “This is outside of the contract (negotiations). This is an agreement I just want to push through and I want it to happen. This is a safety concern I have for the city.”

Steve added the contents of the MOU would add officers to routine patrol shifts.

“We need officers. We are short,” he said. “I negotiated with them to work on a plan that would be beneficial to (the safety of the city).”

Sandy confirmed talks with the incoming mayor.

“I was working with then mayor-elect (Steve) prior to him taking office and explaining the importance of this step,” Sandy said. “I think this is a move in the right direction to show good faith on not only my part, but the city’s part in working with the union. I think if everybody understands that working together is beneficial, then I think yes, things will move along.”

Sandy said that while he is not deeply involved in contract negotiations, he does have a say on certain things.

“The chief has to be able to run the department,” Sandy added. “Some things have to be maintained in the contract, but that is a city and that is a union negotiation and I weigh in when asked. I think the permanent shifts being done as an MOU instead of waiting for the end of contract negotiations is a positive step. The city administration and my administration are fully in favor of working cooperatively down the road.”

Steve noted that while it is unusual for candidates who have won an election but haven’t yet assumed office to meet with city officials prior to their inauguration, he ultimately did not direct officials to perform any action.

“Legally, (I am) allowed full access to the building 30 days prior to taking the seat. (At the time) I was mayor elect. I had every right to go in that building to do anything I wanted and get everything I wanted, but I can’t give directions to people,” he said. “I wanted to have a conversation with (police officials) to get ahead of (the MOU) because I have so many tasks to get done. So much is going on. If I can start day one, bringing agenda items, we will be able to make things happen.” 

Sandy spoke on the difference between negotiating the contents of the MOU with both Tobin and Steve.

“It is just a philosophical thing between the two administrations,” Sandy said.

With the new changes to the shift schedule now approved, Sandy said he would like to continue gathering feedback from the community going forward.

“We want to let the public know our officers are out there 24/7, keeping this a safe community,” he said. “I like to hear from our community, the good things, or if there is something bad. I like to hear those comments too. If I do not hear this feedback, we cannot address it.”

Sandy said bail reform has caused some confusion in the community.

“A lot of the time, some of the feedback is a misunderstanding as to why things are done a certain way. Once citizens understand that procedurally and legally we have to do certain things a certain way, then they are fine,” Sandy added.

Residents can contact the department at [email protected].