The issue of radio silence has both candidates talking loudly in the Niagara County sheriff's race.
Ernest C. Palmer, the Republican nominee, and James C. Voutour, his Democratic opponent, are sparring over "silent dispatch," a practice of sending patrol cars on police calls without putting out the details over the police radio system for other law enforcement agencies to hear.
Palmer, detective captain in the Niagara Falls Police Department, recently brought the practice to the attention of the media. He says the Sheriff's Office is using silent dispatching to protect its turf and keep the glory of big calls, and he characterized the practice as "a 1950s mind-set [of] parochialism."
Voutour, chief deputy in the Sheriff's Office, says the agency doesn't engage in silent dispatching and that Palmer has manufactured the issue with help from a state trooper who has ties to a Palmer campaign supporter.
"It's ridiculous," said Voutour, a 15-year veteran of the sheriff's force.
Palmer this week provided The Buffalo News a seven-page "memorandum" prepared by the state trooper to back his claims on the silent dispatching.
The memorandum cites numerous times when the trooper believes he should have been dispatched in response to a call because he was closer to the scene but never heard the directive.
In silent dispatching cases, officers are given instructions by cell phone, computer or commands at roll call at the beginning of their shifts.
Voutour said that less than 1 percent of sheriff's calls are silently dispatched and showed The News evidence of increasing numbers of State Police calls in Lockport in the four years since he has been a supervisor. The numbers climbed to 1,775 from 1,170.
"All cops want the hot calls," Voutour said. "It's the nature of their personalities, but last week I went and asked each and every one of [my dispatchers], . . . if they are silently dispatching calls. And they denied it. I looked each one of them in the eye and questioned them, because Palmer has insulted my department."
Palmer said he received the memorandum about silent dispatching from a sheriff's deputy, and told The News he never spoke directly with the trooper who wrote it. Palmer added that "higher ranking members" of the State Police verified the details.
He said silent dispatching can be a great tool when used properly, but also can be dangerous, especially when someone needs help right away.
He vowed to put a stop to it if elected.
Palmer said the Sheriff's Office has an "organizational mind-set" that it owns calls because it operates the 911 dispatch system. The department, he said, hasn't signed a "closest car compact" for more than a year.
"That's just wrong," he said. "If you're in a serious injury [situation], you don't care who responds. You need help and we need to provide that help."
Palmer said the trooper raised the issue of "what if" the Sheriff Office received a call of a subject driving around with a shotgun threatening to commit suicide but relayed this information only by phone call, and the trooper was unaware.
The trooper also said he felt he could have been first on the scene of a recent fatal crash in Wilson that was handled by deputies.
Voutour vehemently denied that claim, playing the 911 tapes for The News.
"This happened during shift change, and the Sheriff's Department [on Sunset Drive] is clearly much closer than the State Police [barracks on Robinson Road]," he said. "We sent our patrol car there directly."
Both locations are in the Town of Lockport.
Voutour identified the trooper who wrote the memorandum as Jacob Rudnick.
State Police leaders said Rudnick prepared the piece on his own and that it is not an official report.
Capt. Craig. S. Hanesworth, from the Lockport barracks, said he was unable to speak directly about the memorandum but said he and Troop "A" Commander Major Christopher L. Cummings meet monthly with Voutour and acting Sheriff Samuel Muscarella, and have an "excellent working relationship" with them.
Hanesworth added that the State Police have "no issues" with the Sheriff's Office's enhanced 911 system.
Voutour said the claims made by Rudnick are politically motivated since Rudnick and one of the sheriff's dispatchers have a long-standing friendship and the dispatcher's father is politically connected to Palmer.
Palmer said he knows the father, a former Niagara Falls city official, but the man doesn't work on his campaign.
Voutour and Palmer are vying to succeed Thomas A. Beilein, a Democrat recently confirmed as chairman of the State Commission of Correction.