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Town of Tonawanda approves police reorganization plan

Town of Tonawanda Police

With time running down to get police reorganization plans to Albany, the Town of Tonawanda approved its 166-page package Monday night, ready to send it on to the State Division of the Budget. There are hundreds of these packages heading off to Albany, as required by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order. The state has threatened to cut off state cash if the governments running the police agencies don’t comply.

It’s basically a required root and branch study of departments and how they might improve community relationships with some reorganization. Tonawanda Town Board Member Jill O’Malley said there was initially some suspicion.

"A lot of people thought this was a mechanism to defund police or to shift resources," O'Malley said. "We want to increase police patrols, a dedicated community policing plan, really a lot of accolades for our police department."

As required by the governor’s order, the police reform study looked at whether traditional police activities could be handled by social service personnel. The plan calls for officers to be crosstrained as certified Crisis Intervention Team members and a behavioral health clinician to be embedded in the department.

Chief James Stauffiger said they aren’t the same thing.

"Officers vetted is completely a scaled-down version of what social workers do. So there’s a completely different level of training and expertise involved in a CIT officer in comparison to what a social worker does. It’s like the next step. It’s like having a nurse and a doctor," Stauffiger said.

The new plan includes training more officers to handle mental illness among town residents and use alternatives to their service weapons, like Tasers, pepper spray and de-escalation techniques, all to avoid direct physical contact with a person in crisis. Stauffiger said about 75% of officers and other department personel have been trained in crisis intervention.

Maria Tisby had a series of questions about who served on the committee that put together the plan in cooperation with the Police Department.

"Okay, so once all these names were submitted, Chief asked you somebody else had to be on the committee.," Tisby said. "I guess I’m interested in how the rest of the committee was selected. Did somebody say, '(Town Supervisor) Mr. (Joe) Emminger, pick a non-profit, pick a faith-based person' or did you guys pass a resolution or something?"

The group putting together the plan turned out to be pretty diverse, reflecting changes in the suburban town in recent decades.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Town of Tonawanda Police Chief James Stauffiger (l) swears in new officer James Sherod Jr. (r) in front of Town Board members.

Right after the Town Board approved the plan, Stauffiger swore in the Police Department's newest officer. Kevin Sherod Jr. came from a post with University at Buffalo Police to work in his hometown.

The police chief said a diverse department is important in a town whose demographics and economics have changed over recent decades. 

"When I started, there was one female on the force. She was a legacy hire. Her father retired from here. Now we have, I believe, seven female officers and we have, including Kevin Sherod, people of color and we are really working towards having more of a Police Department that exemplifies how our community is made up," he said.

Stauffiger said it is also a better-educated force than when he came on and better trained.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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