A decade of trouble for Schenectady police
The Albany Times Union by PAUL NELSON - February 19, 2009
SCHENECTADY — Two mayors, three police chiefs and two public safety commissioners have all tried to tame the troubled Schenectady Police Department over the past decade.
But regardless of who is in charge, there always seems to be one lowly common denominator: Schenectady cops being arrested, suspended and forced to resign. It's those chronic symptoms that prompted Mayor Brian U. Stratton to hire former State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett as his Public Safety Commissioner and later Police Chief Mark Chaires to burnish the department's image. Both expressed dismay Wednesday over allegations Officer Dwayne Johnson – who last year took home nearly $170,000 by racking up a prodigious number of overtime hours – may have shirked his duties by spending several hours on consecutive Tuesday mornings inside a Woodlawn apartment when he should have been on patrol. "He was high-profile as the high wage-earner, and now he's high-profile because he's apparently ripping us off," said Stratton. City Councilman Gary McCarthy said he is just fed up with bad news about officers' behavior.
"I'd like to go one week where we don't have a negative newspaper article about the department," said McCarthy, chairman of the panel's public safety committee. "It's just baffling that it just keeps happening. It's human nature that people are going to make mistakes, but this just seems so institutionalized." He faults what he described as poor management for the seemingly endless litany of problems that have rocked the 166-member department over the years. Fellow city councilman Joseph Allen blames the powerful police union. "These guys, because they are a part of the union, think they can do anything,'' he said. Police Benevolent Association President Lt. Robert Hamilton did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment. While Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney refused to speculate on what criminal charges his office might pursue, Commissioner Bennett said disciplinary action could range from a written discipline to termination. But the allegations against Johnson pale in comparison to charges other Schenectady officers have faced since 1999.
Four cops – Lt. Michael F. Hamilton Jr. and officers Nicola Messere, Michael Siler and Richard Barnett – served prison time earlier this decade on federal corruption convictions. Another officer, Kenneth Hill, went to state prison for giving a gun to a drug dealer. Investigator Jeffrey Curtis is serving a prison sentence for stealing cocaine from the vice squad. Another vice squad investigator, Chris Maher, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was demoted to the road patrol in connection with allegations he told a friend about an ongoing State Police investigation of gambling. Earlier this month, ex-Chief Gregory T. Kaczmarek began serving a two-year state prison sentence for his role in a narcotics distribution ring. More recently, Officer John Lewis, whom the city has taken steps to fire, has been charged with harassing his former wife, driving while drunk and then getting into a fight with his brother who also is a cop. He is out on unpaid leave while Officer Sherri Barnes and Sgt. Joseph A. Peters IV are being paid while they are off the job pending separate internal probes.
She is suspected of abusing prescription drugs and he faces drunken-driving charges. Three other officers, cleared of charges related to a police brutality case, recently returned to work after being suspended with pay. Two other Schenectady cops, however, also face the prospect of losing their jobs for their role in that same case. Darren Lawrence faces charges in Colonie for allegedly leaving the scene of a 2006 accident after crashing a car on the Northway and fighting with his passenger over whether to report the crash. He is awaiting trial. Finally, Officer Ronald Pedersen was forced to resign in 2002 after a prostitute alleged that he brutalized her. And the controversy isn't limited to the past decade. In years past, a Schenectady cop was arrested for breaking into cars behind Proctors, and another officer served six years for raping a woman being held in the police station cellblock.
Two mayors, Albert P. Jurczynski and his successor, Stratton, have made attempts to reform the department. In efforts to change the culture of the department, Jurczynski in 2003 hired Syracuse police commander Daniel Boyle as public safety commissioner, and Stratton filled the position several years later with retired State Police Superintendent Bennett. Kaczmarek led the department when the FBI in 1999 launched a probe that led to the convictions of Hamilton, Messere, Siler and Barnett. He was followed in 2002 by Michael Geraci, a deputy chief from Colonie, and now Chaires, a former assistant chief. As part of the investigation into Johnson's on-duty whereabouts, officials will review radio transmissions and GPS records, and Stratton said he has ordered the department's Office of Professional Standards to look into if police commanders or the dispatcher were complicit. The department will also begin requiring that dispatchers to check with patrols every 15 minutes. Johnson was scheduled to work his regular midnight-to-8 a.m. shift. He could not be reached for comment. Paul Nelson can be reached at 454-5347 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Officer Richard Barnett served 15 months in federal prison after admitting in 2000 that he gave crack cocaine to an informant.
- Officer Kenneth Hill served nearly two years in state prison after admitting he gave a gun to a drug dealer in 2004.
- Ex-Chief Gregory T. Kaczmarek is currently serving two years in state prison for a 2008 drug conviction.
- Schenectady police Officer John Lewis faces misdemeanor charges for allegedly drunk driving, stalking his ex-wife, and damaging property.
- Officer Darren Lawrence faces charges in Colonie for allegedly leaving the scene of a 2006 accident after crashing a car on the Northway and fighting with his passenger over whether to report what happened.
- Lt. Michael F. Hamilton Jr. served a four-year federal prison sentence after a jury in 2002 convicted him of tipping off a target of a drug investigation.
- Officer Nicola Messere served a two-year federal prison sentence after a jury in 2002 convicted him of giving drugs to an informant.
- Investigator Jeffrey Curtis is serving a four-year sentence in state prison after admitting he stole cocaine from the vice squad to feed his drug habit.
- Officer Michael Siler was sentenced to two years in federal prison after admitting he gave drugs to an informant.
- Officer Dwayne Johnson is under investigation for spending time inside a Schenectady apartment while he was supposed to be on patrol.
- Officer Ronald Pedersen resigned from the Police Department in 2002 after allegations he roughed up a prostitute.
- Vice Squad Investigator Christopher Maher pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in connection with allegations he tipped off friend about a State Police gambling investigation.