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Buffalo’s top hostage negotiator retires

Gary E. Teague tried to talk a distraught father out of committing “suicide by cop.” The man, who had just shot a police officer, refused to listen and forced the hand of the SWAT team.

When a Vietnam War veteran blocked traffic on the I-190 and threatened suicide, Teague brokered a peaceful ending.

And when downtown pawn shop workers were held hostage, Teague supervised other hostage negotiators. The three workers lived; the gunman killed himself.

For decades, Teague has been at the center of many of Buffalo’s biggest police dramas as people unable to cope have threatened to harm themselves or others. His soft-spoken, easy-going demeanor made him the perfect fit for the police department’s Crisis Management Team, according to his colleagues.

But the team will have to carry on without him. The 65-year-old detective sergeant is retiring after 36 years of service.

Teague never lost his cool in the high-voltage situations where life and death hung in the balance, they said.

“He was a huge asset to the department and served the citizens of the City of Buffalo for decades with honor and distinction and will be greatly missed,” said Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.

The second most senior member of the city police force, Teague says he is stepping down from a job he never could have imagined as a youngster growing up on Buffalo’s East Side. But at 28, he took a chance.

“I was going to UB for political science and working as a driver in quality control for the school lunch program. I would take school lunches to City Hall every day to be sampled. A lady at City Hall would always talk to me when I came in. She’d say, ‘Look, there is more to you than this.’ She’d say, ‘Why shouldn’t you take some of the exams for firefighter and police officer?’

“I told her I never wanted to be a police officer growing up and she said, ‘Do it for me and let’s see how you do.’ I took the exam, scored high enough and they called me. I decided to go through with it,” said Teague, who left UB but years later earned an associate degree at ECC.

Assigned to Precinct 12, known as the Genesee Station, he patrolled the streets where he grew up and quickly came to love the work for its variety and the chance to help others.

“Every day was different. You got to meet people, you got to help some and you put some bad people away,” he said.

In one instance, he recalled how he and his partner, Officer Michael A. Eason, spoke to a teenager who had been in a street fight.

Years later, he encountered the same young man at police headquarters.

“Do you remember me?” the young man said.

Teague thought his face was familiar but couldn’t place the exact incident.

“He recalled the fight and how we explained that there was more to him than just being a street kid,” Teague said.

That young man was now a Buffalo police officer.

How he coped

Teague and Eason advanced to plainclothes’ assignments and investigated a series of sexual assaults against young boys on the East Side in the mid 1980s. The attacker was never found, but Teague went on to become a detective and worked for more than 20 years in what was then the newly formed Sex Offense Squad.

Investigating rapes, child molestations and other sex-related crimes was not easy, but Teague said he felt good about empathizing with the victims and catching their attackers.

“You feel the greatest satisfaction when you put the bad guy away,” he said, adding that at the end of each shift, he would try to block out all of the terrible situations he encountered.

“I didn’t want to talk about it. I would just enjoy my family and friends,” said Teague, who is married and has three grown children and three grandchildren.

Some of the time, he says, his coping mechanism worked. But not always.

“I’d be in the middle of watching a TV show and suddenly the case would come back to me, especially a crime scene,” he said.

Yet he had an inner balance no horror could steal, he explained.

“I grew up in a two-parent household and there was always love.”

That balance was put to the test many times after he was appointed to the Crisis Management Team in the late 1990s.

Officer shot

He recalls a cold day in February 2010 when he took over as the chief negotiator after team member John Garcia was wounded when a father caught up in a bitter child-custody dispute shot the detective.

Teague tried to end the standoff peacefully from his post behind a SWAT truck in the driveway of a Trinity Place residence on the edge of downtown. The gunman was on the second floor of a rear cottage.

“When you negotiate, you are always hopeful, even under these circumstances where a police officer has been shot. The guy was threatening to kill himself. I told him, ‘You need to be there for your children.’ He recalled things like his father wasn’t there for him, so somebody would step up. I said, ‘Nobody can raise your children the way you want to unless you are there for them.’ He countered, ‘They will be better off without me.’

“The negotiations went on for quite some time. I would gain ground and I would think he was on the verge of coming out but my biggest problem was he had a large supply of alcohol which kept fueling his fire. ... in this case, he made up his mind of what he wanted to do, suicide by cop.”

Teague had another concern: What kind of shape was Garcia in?

“It wasn’t until someone handed me a cellphone later at the debriefing that I spoke to him from the hospital. He was suffering but I could hear he was OK. I was relieved.”

Aftermath and future

There was one more chapter to this tragedy.

Hours after the funeral for the man who had been killed, his younger brother rammed a police cruiser outside Buffalo Police Headquarters and displayed what appeared to be a gun. A chase ended on Trinity Place by the cottage with Teague once again on the scene.

“I spoke with him. He broke down in tears. He’d just come from the funeral and just wasn’t thinking right. I told him, ‘You have a responsibility of taking care of not only your kids but your brother’s.’ I know he’s doing better because I’ve seen him around.”

Four years ago, Teague was appointed commander of the Crisis Management Team.

“Gary was always a calming influence,” said Detective Garcia, who was recently appointed team commander after Teague retired. “His years of experience at seeing people at their worst is what made him perfect for the job.”

Although Teague says that police work will always be with him, he is looking forward to when the weather breaks. He and his wife, Pamela, will head out to visit relatives scattered across the country. “We’re just going to point the car in any direction and head off and start visiting,” said Teague.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com