The Tonawanda News by April Amadon and Neale Gulley - January 9, 2009
— When the news broke last month that Niagara Falls Police Officer Ryan Warme had been arrested, reactions across the community were mixed. Some were surprised that a police officer — a man charged with protecting residents — would find himself on the other side of the law. Other more jaded residents pointed to the arrest as just another example of someone on the force abusing his power. For local law enforcement officials, the prevailing mood was one of disappointment. “You’re let down,” Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour said. “You take an oath of office, and you trust the people you’re working with respect that oath. When someone lets you down like that, it does give a black eye to law enforcement.” Warme, 27, was arrested Dec. 2 by his fellow Falls police, along with federal agents. Warme was charged with raping and tormenting women and buying cocaine on duty. Warme has now been suspended from the Falls police, and he remains in custody. He will return to court Jan. 23. City of Tonawanda Police Chief Cindy Young and North Tonawanda Chief of Police Randy Szukala each discussed how such allegations are viewed within their respective departments. “It’s not just their behavior eight hours a day, it’s their behavior 24/7 that they have to answer to,” Young said.
The message was the same – an emphasis less on shock, in a profession where betrayal, violence and corruption are an everyday theme of the job -- but deep disappointment coupled with the constant need to uphold higher-than-normal standards of conduct. “I don’t think anybody can predict what will happen with somebody,” Szukala said. Warme’s father Gordon, for instance, is a 30-year retired veteran of the Niagara Falls police force who is highly regarded by his colleagues. In this case, the bad apple fell a long way from the tree. “There are different things that happen to (the officers) throughout their lives – they’re exposed to different things.”
Close to home
The Twin Cities are no stranger to dealing with occasional, albeit somewhat less sensational infractions by police officers. Young and Szukala flatly decried Warme’s actions, offering examples of their own firings in recent years to explain both the rigors involved in bringing new officers on board and the necessity to act with a firm hand when things go wrong. In May 2006, former City of Tonawanda officer Brian MacDonald was cut from the force in light of 17 charges of misconduct, including attempting to patronize a prostitute, attending a Buffalo Bisons baseball game with a convicted felon and lying to superior officers. The charges prompted a lawsuit settled early this year, granting MacDonald $47,000 in lost wages and benefits. “It’s not always easy to do the right thing, but you have to do it,” Young said. “A lot of the officers are people who you’ve been out on the road with for years and you had each other’s backs – and now you’re in a position to discipline them. You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen.” In 2005, Szukala said a 17-year veteran of the North Tonawanda force, Patrick Baly, was fired after it was discovered he possessed illegal drugs. While a strong bond can form among officers sharing in the day-to-day perils they are exposed to, he said “the city’s finest” aren’t called that for nothing, and off-duty conduct is as important as any other, especially in a small town where such individuals are as much ambassadors as they are enforcers.
At the sheriff’s department, Voutour said they perform extensive background checks, reviewing financial histories for any sign the candidate has problems with money. “(If they do), they have more tendency to maybe be corrupt,” Voutour said. “It’s difficult to predict the future character of a person, and the only way you can predict the future is to look at the past.” Both Twin Cities departments conduct their own rigorous background checks using their own detectives, in addition to the usual civil service exam and physical agility test scores. In the last year, Young has instituted a separate, psychological evaluation conducted by Dr. Jay Supnick, of Law Enforcement Psychological Associates, in Rochester. The two-day commitment by prospective officers is more than what is required, but, said Lt. Fred Foels of the City of Tonawanda Police Department, such information can make or break a candidate for the job. “It’s not just pushups – that psychological evaluation is a big, big factor in deciding if that person is fit to be a police officer,” he said. But even for departments where such extra measures aren’t routine, he indicated it has never been easy to become a cop. “Our department,” Foels said, “Our detectives conduct the background inquiry and really dig into a person’s past and they try to get into every nook and cranny of the person. You can ace an exam, but when you get into a person’s background there are sometimes some things in a person’s past.”
Depending on the complaint, there are different avenues it may take. Some complaints are simple — for instance, a driver complaining an officer was rude during a traffic stop — while others may be more complex or serious. People who are uncomfortable going to the local police to complain about an officer can go to the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office. Some law enforcement agencies, including the New York State Police, have internal affairs units that deal specifically with complaints and allegations of misconduct within that department. District Attorney Michael Violante could not be reached to comment on how his office handles complaints and allegations of police misconduct. At the sheriff’s department, anyone with a complaint should call dispatch and ask to speak to a shift supervisor, Voutour said. He said they entertain a variety o complaints. “We’ll look at it and get both sides of the story,” he said. “Obviously, if it’s just, ‘The officer was short with me,’ that may be handled at the shift supervisor level. Anything (at a) criminal level will come to me quickly.” Contact reporter April Amadon at 439-9222, ext. 6251. Contact reporter Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 114.