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Falls officer held in road rage assault

A Niagara Falls police officer is accused of striking a man with his motorcycle helmet and knocking him unconscious during an alleged road rage incident earlier this month.

James J. Conte left the scene outside a Wheatfield restaurant on his Harley-Davidson before emergency responders arrived, according to a Niagara County Sheriff’s Office report. He faces a felony assault charge.

The victim told deputies Conte was tailgating him on the I-190 in the Town of Niagara, followed him down the LaSalle Expressway and confronted him in the parking lot of Sandi’s restaurant just before 1:30 p.m. Sept. 5.

Three witnesses told deputies they saw Conte use his helmet to hit the man, who fell backwards and struck his head on Conte’s motorcycle before hitting the ground.

The witnesses described seeing Conte – who was the subject of a 2002 federal lawsuit alleging police brutality – kick the man “a few times in the upper body and head” before he got on his motorcycle and drove away, according to the police report. The victim appeared to be knocked out, the witnesses told deputies.

The victim, a 45-year-old Niagara Falls man, told deputies he didn’t remember what happened after he was struck with the helmet.

One witness told investigators Conte was asked to remain on scene, and Conte responded, “I’m not leaving, I’m just moving the bike.”

A witness took a photograph of Conte’s license plate, which deputies tracked to his residence in Niagara Falls.

Conte, 48, is a veteran officer who also was suspended in 1997 after shooting a dog.

He pleaded not guilty in Wheatfield Town Court on Sept. 15 during his arraignment before Justice Erin P. DeLabio, according to a court official. He was released on his own recognizance.

Conte is due back before a judge on Oct. 20. The court said Conte did not have an attorney on file for the case as of Friday.

Niagara Falls Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said the department is cooperating with the Sheriff’s Office in its investigation and is conducting its own internal investigation, which is standard procedure in this type of case.

“We obviously don’t tolerate any inappropriate behavior,” DalPorto said. “We take these matters very seriously.”

Conte has been put on paid administrative leave. DalPorto said the department considered the issue a personnel matter and said he couldn’t comment further.

The victim told deputies Conte began to tailgate him while they were driving on the southbound I-190 near the Kmart on Military Road.

“I tried to get over and was unable to,” he told deputies. “I then was able to get in the other lane when the motorcycle rider came up alongside me and gave me and the car in front of me the middle finger.” The victim said he saw Conte get “involved” with another vehicle while driving on the LaSalle Expressway.

Conte followed him into the restaurant parking lot at Williams and River roads, the victim told deputies, then approached him and told him to get out of his car. The victim said Conte swore at him and that he swore back.

The victim, who said he was hit on the left side of his face and had a welt and a red mark in the area of his temple, according to the report, initially told deputies he did not want to press charges and that he “would chalk it up to a life lesson on not to get out of his vehicle when involved in a road rage incident.” He was attended to by responders from Rural/Metro at the scene, the report said.

The victim later informed investigators he would like to press charges and he was going to be evaluated at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital, Lewiston.

The class D felony charge of second-degree assault was lodged as an attempt to cause injury with a weapon – the motorcycle helmet.

The city settled the police brutality lawsuit against Conte out of court in 2002 for $22,500. Conte was accused of handcuffing and beating a woman who reported her wallet was stolen. A Niagara County grand jury found there was insufficient evidence in the case to bring criminal charges. An internal Police Department investigation at the time found no wrongdoing.

In June 1997, Conte responded to a dangerous dog complaint behind a building on Main Street when he fired his service pistol twice, wounding a dog he said started to attack him. Afterwards, he was suspended three days without pay. He also was removed from his current patrol assignment and was counseled on proper procedures in those circumstances.

The Niagara County District Attorney’s Office did not respond Friday to a request seeking comment in the case.