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Cramped Cheektowaga police are feeling the pinch

Forget CSI Miami. In Cheektowaga, it's the SIU, or police "Scientific Investigation Unit," that collects evidence at crime scenes.

And while TV's make-believe investigators work in a gleaming new lab in a glass high-rise, the work space for some of Cheektowaga's real investigators is behind the overhead door in the police garage, which they share with a collection of motorcycles and stolen bikes.

"There was nowhere else to put them," said Lt. David Przepiora, police spokesman.

Nearly every corner of Cheektowaga's 40-year-old Police Headquarters and court building on Union Road seems crammed with equipment, records and other items needed to run a modern criminal-justice system.

During a recent tour of the police and court building requested by The Buffalo News, police officials pointed to numerous problems that -- in their words -- ranged between "very dangerous" overcrowding of the lockup to the "ridiculous" cramped room where officers interview witnesses and suspects, often at the same time.

And many town officials agree.

"It's a disaster," Town Clerk -- and soon to be Town Supervisor -- Mary F. Holtz said.

The area's second-most-populous suburb conducts business in a Depression Era Town Hall that's too small to house some departments and surrounded by a government "campus" at Union Road and Broadway that has grown without a plan.

The campus extends from the Highway Department garage and a group of dilapidated town buildings that officials have dubbed "shanty town" on the south, to the town's newest building, the 25-year-old senior center at 3349 Broadway.

Earlier this year, Supervisor James J. Jankowiak convened an informal committee to study the town's needs for office space and what can be done to improve town buildings.

The committee is waiting for a report from Kideney Architects, which has studied office space and will help the town plan its next moves.

Nowhere are the problems more evident than at Police Headquarters, where Police Chief Christine M. Ziemba says it's difficult for police to hold meetings on the first floor when, one floor below in a not-so-soundproof firing range, other officers are qualifying with firearms.

"The noise is really quite something," Ziemba said.

At the other end of the building, Cheektowaga's town courts have to store some records in hallways. Many parts of the court are not wheelchair-accessable, said Court Administrator Stephanie Lewandowski.

Jankowiak said officials are aware that Cheektowaga taxpayers cannot afford an extravagant plan for new facilities.

"It's going to be a very modest, workable plan," he said.

That means the town will likely rely more on renovating and reusing buildings rather than constructing new buildings, officials said.

To pay for the work, Jankowiak said, officials are considering using the proceeds from the sale of the former South Branch Library on William Street, along with some fund balances and $800,000 that has been promised to the town by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y.

These funds, about $1.2 million, could be seed money for the project, Jankowiak said.

Jankowiak's presumed successor, Holtz, who has no opposition in Tuesday's election, said she is eager to begin work on the plan, hopefully sometime next year.

Officials say the first step in any plan will be redesigning the confusing network of roads and parking lots. Jankowiak called the present system "a traffic nightmare" that makes it difficult and unsafe for police cars and others headed south on Union Road during heavy traffic periods, forcing them make a left turn without a traffic signal or drive several blocks out of their way to enter Union from Broadway.

Another early stage of the plan is likely to involve building a three-story addition on the north end of the police and court building, officials said.

The proposed addition, expected to cost between $3 million and $8 million, would house a lockup, elevator and other facilities for transporting prisoners to court. It would eliminate the current system, which requires police to escort defendants through a public hallway, often crowded with victims' families, witnesses, lawyers and defendants' kin.

Police said the brief moments they spend in these hallways make them potential targets for anyone who may want to help the defendant escape or who may want to harm the police or their prisoner.

The addition of more court space will free up more room in the building for police, Jankowiak and other officials say.

It will also pave the way for the next step, expected to be an addition to Town Hall.

The current hall is now so crowded that the building inspectors must split their staff, sending several inspectors to an office in a town-owned building on Alexander Avenue.

Thomas J. Adamczak, the town's chief inspector, says this is not just inconvenient, it means spending on office equipment and extra staff.


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