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The Lockport and North Tonawanda police departments are conserving manpower by forcing the Niagara County Sheriff's Department to take prisoners to and from the county jail for court appearances.

And while the sheriff is responsible for prisoner transport under the state's Criminal Procedure Law, until this year the county's three cities had been doing that duty.

The Niagara Falls Police Department still does, according to Lt. John P. DeMarco, police operations officer. He said having deputies transport prisoners "is not an agenda item here yet."

But the changeover with Lockport and North Tonawanda will tie up some of Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein's corrections officers and, possibly, road patrol deputies for more hours than he planned for in his budget.

Lockport Police Chief Neil B. Merritt said: "Sometimes we had our entire day shift, including the captain and the shift commander, transporting prisoners. We have all kinds of details that weren't being taken care of because of that on day shift."

Merritt also said transporting prisoners had other negative effects on police operations.

"I had to utilize our parking violations clerk as a female matron when female prisoners were brought in, and for some reason, we've had a lot more female prisoners in the last few years than we used to," Merritt said. "(The clerk) would not only have to go to the jail, get the prisoners and bring them here, but would have to wait in court for them -- sometimes for one or 1 1/2 hours," he said.

"Our warrant officer was doubling as the court officer, bringing prisoners back and forth to City Court from the city lockup, in addition to a lot of other extra duties he's been assigned," Merritt said.

"It just got to a certain point where we couldn't do it anymore and provide the city with the services we're being paid to provide," he said. The county assumed the responsibility Jan. 3.

North Tonawanda Police Chief Carl W. Stiles said the sheriff's department will take over prisoner transport duties for his department March 1.

"It came to a point where we really had to try to downsize as much as possible. It's an overtime issue, and we've been looking for ways to save money," Stiles said.

"We are probably making 100 trips (to the jail) a year, and we often had to do it with officers after shift on overtime. So we requested (the sheriff) to make these transports."

Sheriff's department statistics for 2000 show that North Tonawanda police made 118 transport trips to the jail; Lockport, 299; and Niagara Falls, 443.

Stiles estimated it would cost the city at least $100 for each trip, considering it requires two officers to travel about 15 miles to drop prisoners off at the jail.

He said by law his officers have to transport prisoners after their arrest and arraignment in City Court.

"But the sheriff's department is responsible for bringing them back and forth to (future appearances in) court once a prisoner is locked up, arraigned and committed to the jail," he said.

With Lockport court facilities being minutes away, Beilein said his officers took inmates back and forth with few problems, though he has to cut back somewhat on other activities such as the transportation of federal prisoners.

But taking on North Tonawanda will cause him manpower problems that may have to be split up between corrections officers and road patrol deputies. He said the matter is being looked into by Deputy Jail Superintendent John Saxton.

To compensate, he said, his department will stop transporting federal prisoners and let federal marshals handle that duty, a move that could cost his department revenue. "We get $80 a day" for housing federal inmates, he said.

A major problem will come if Niagara Falls ever jumps on board, Beilein said.

With such a heavy load of prisoners from that city, Beilein said he will need more officers and more adequate means of transporting prisoners.

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