A seemingly straightforward proposal to replace uniform patches with a unified design has ignited a contentious battle between the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office and the union representing patrol deputies.
Sheriff Toby Shelley, who assumed office earlier this year, introduced the idea of swapping the department-specific arm patches with a standard “sheriff” patch for all employees.
However, what was intended as a simple uniform update escalated into a complex legal dispute, with a grievance filed by the police division union and a counter lawsuit from the sheriff’s office against the union.
The heart of the disagreement lies in the interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement and concerns over safety and identification.
The police division union, led by President Laura Collins, filed a grievance opposing the uniform change on grounds that it violates their collective bargaining agreement.
Collins argued that retaining department-specific arm patches is crucial for both safety and pride among deputies.
“This will promote legitimate, earned pride in position, enhance safety and avoid the unnecessary expense of replacing patches and/or uniforms,” she stated in a grievance.
Sheriff Shelley’s administration has since taken the matter to the State Supreme Court, seeking to have the grievance dismissed.
Undersheriff Jeffery Passino, a former union president, defended the proposed patch change, asserting that it would lead to cost savings and foster a sense of unity within the sheriff’s office.
“The administration feels strongly that the sheriff’s office is a single entity and should reflect that. Having a single patch goes a long way toward that goal,” Passino opined.
Sheriff Shelley also echoed this sentiment, pointing out the potential annual savings of up to $10,000 by adopting a standardized uniform patch.
The administration anticipates that a uniform patch overhaul could also reduce the immediate need for new uniforms when deputies change divisions.
Passino also added that bulk ordering the standardized patches would further reduce costs.
In response to concerns about confusion resulting from the uniform patch change, Matthew Fischer, chief of the police division, indicated that the transition would be gradual.
The police division union’s argument against the uniform patch change also extends to safety concerns.
The union contends that removing department-specific identifiers could hinder the ability of highly trained police division members to identify each other in critical situations, posing safety risks. This safety concern has led the union to demand arbitration, asserting that it falls under the scope of mandatory bargaining subjects.
“There will be no way for bargaining unit members or the public to know if an individual works in police, corrections, custody or civil or courts,” Collins explained.
The grievance process involves three levels of review before arbitration can be demanded. The police division chief, the chief deputy of administration and the county director of employee relations have all denied the union’s grievance, asserting that changing the uniforms is not a mandatory subject of bargaining as outlined in the union contract.
In response to the union’s objections, Passino maintained in his affidavit that the administration has the authority to alter uniforms and has done so on multiple occasions over the years.
As the dispute continues to unfold in the legal arena, Sheriff Shelley and the county are seeking a court decision to dismiss the grievance, enabling them to proceed with their proposed uniform patch change.