On creating the position of Police Chief

Dear Residents;

Grand Island is blessed. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, State Police, County Sheriffs, State Park Police, our Town Police, and a robust band of volunteer fire fighters are all here to help ensure safety and security. Yes, we have problems, including a growing drug epidemic. But compared to other similarly situated communities, we have a strong web of law enforcement to help.

There are some who want to change the delicate balance of these agencies.  There has been some chatter about having a Police Chief.  I don’t think we need a police chief.  I don’t think it would make us more strong, it would make us less strong and here’s why.

Almost no other town with a part-time force has a Chief

Let’s compare our part-time police department to other part-time police departments locally. In Clarence, there is no fully organized, independent police department. They just rely on the County Sheriff’s road patrol and part-time court officers. Akron does have a chief. But as far as I know, it’s the only part-time Chief anywhere in New York State. Other places may have officers with similar titles, but no Chief. And Akron is set up differently than Grand Island. Grand Island is more like Springville, because our police department supports the Sheriff’s Department, which has a 24-hour a day presence on Grand Island, along with the 24-hour, permanent presence of our State Troopers.  In Blasdell, there is also no chief. There is just an officer in charge, even though he actually holds the rank of Chief in the Buffalo Police Department.

If a Chief is appointed, it will lead to increased costs

What would be next is likely the creation of a civil servant’s position. In fact, Erie County Civil Service has told us that every title beyond police officer (including the officer in charge designation) is a civil service position. It is difficult to eliminate a civil service position (and the full bundle of rights it represents—including set pay requirements).  Thus, once we have a chief, we are likely stuck with a Chief forever, and all of the associated costs. At the risk of sounding clichéd, we will have opened Pandora’s box. Please let me explain further.  

In the past, when Grand Island flirted with dramatic changes to its police structure, the County actually threatened to remove their Sheriff’s substation from here. If that were to go, it would cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to make up for it. Right now, with the part-time force supplementing the Sheriffs and Troopers, we are getting a great deal. The current cost of our force is about $200,000 a year. Every third or fourth year we buy a new car, which adds considerably to these costs. But what we absolutely do not want is a full-time force or anything that might eventually lead to a full-time force and added costs. If we are going to add costs at all, I would suggest we spread the wealth and increase officer pay or add a night time shift. Wasting money on an unnecessary Chief is just not wise. 

Right now, our Town’s financial condition is quite good, thanks in no small part to the efforts of our Supervising Accountant at Town Hall—shout out to Pam. All of our major funds (sewer, highway, etc.) are all healthy. But let me say it again, by establishing a Chief we would be starting down the road of adding costs and possibly a full-time set of officers. And in this environment of an Andrew Cuomo imposed 1% tax cap (which means about $10,000 more revenue max a year), eventually our surpluses will erode. Because of increasing costs they will erode anyway, but why hasten it?

When I raise these concerns, some of my Town Board colleagues say, “It will be up to future Town Boards to control costs.” But I will not pass the buck. I want to stop the bleeding before we ever make a cut. 

The Chief would be a Chief of what exactly? 

Do you realize that right now we only have one Grand Island officer on duty at any given time, and usually only two officers a day? It's one guy (or gal) in a patrol car, by himself, twice a day. There are no morning meetings where someone gives the day’s instructions and says, “Be careful out there,” because (and I will keep saying this) our force is supplementary to other teams of law enforcement. Nor is there a holding cell somewhere with a suspect sliding his mug against the bars—the Sheriffs take those folks downtown. And all of this is OK. It’s how our force is designed to work. Finally, there is no hierarchy of captains and lieutenants to manage and control. If we appoint a chief, our hierarchy would consist of one domineering and unquestionable force.

I am already greatly concerned by the apparent outside political pressure and the series of political machinations that have led to this proposed change. Further, I don’t understand what apparent malady this change is meant to cure? For instance, if we assume, hypothetically, that there is a morale issue and that the Officer-in-Charge has lost the respect of the force; what material difference will the title of Chief make? Or to put it another way, if a private won’t respect his Captain, will he suddenly respect him more if the Captain starts calling himself Colonel?

“McMurray hates cops.” Bull! I’m listening to the cops

I’ve come to the realization that I have been, and will continue to be, the subject of all manner scurrilous accusations because of my opposition to the appointment of a Chief. But they can say what they want. I’m not part of any clique or club. And I will not bend to the pressures of anyone angling for a change or a positon of any type. I will continue to analyze this objectively and do what is right in the long-term interests of Grand Island. 

You may be aware that I recently pushed for a change to our police cars. I asked the board to have them painted, and after some rankling they thankfully agreed. I’ll be honest.  I’d have them painted powder blue like the bridges, if I could have. And that has nothing to do with my disregard for the police. It has to do with my desire to create a high- profile, easily identifiable police presence that is part of the community.

There is a reason they call police cars “black and whites” after all. If we need a stealth car to catch speeders, I have an old jalopy at Town Hall that you can throw a light up on the top—Starsky and Hutch style. We don’t need an $80,000 car for that on Grand Island. I also strongly believe, after listening to opinions of police both here, downtown, and from around the country, that a police presence that is overly militarized or needlessly intimidating actually leads to increased violence against police officers.

I’m thankful that the cars will now be identifiable. Neither that action, nor my stance against the creation of a Police Chief means I’m anti-police. Both positions come from my willingness to listen to the citizens of Grand Island and the many police officers themselves who have raised these concerns.

If I lose on the Chief, I will persist on the process

Who am I to opine on these subjects? I have no police experience, right? I am not required to do so any more than our Constitution requires our Commander in Chief to have military experience. The public appointed me to my post because of my views, vision, and judgment. And right now, I see no compelling reason to dramatically overhaul the structure of our police force.

And if by some crazy twist of fate, we do end up deciding to hire a police chief, you can be sure that I will demand a thorough and rigorous interview process of many candidates, taking into account training, education, temperament, experience and other factors. No person should ever get a gun and a badge (or the rank of Chief) as a favor. I am here to put an end to such nonsense on Grand Island. Yes, it would be the easy and politically expedient thing for me to just come out and say, “Rah, rah, I believe in law enforcement and I want a chief.” But I won’t fight for what is easy. I will fight for what is right. And right now, opposing the creation of this position for this department is the right thing to do.

With highest regards,

Nate