Feb. 19, 1942 – July 29, 2017
A stocky, bow-legged guy in rumpled clothes, often seen chomping on a smelly cigar, Joseph T. Ransford didn't look the part of a crime-fighting superhero.
But many of the officers who worked with him at the Buffalo Police Department considered him the best street cop they ever saw.
"I never saw anyone like him. He was a 100 mile-an-hour cop who had contacts in every neighborhood of the city. He was street-smart like no one else, and had no fear," said James C. Jackson, a retired deputy police commissioner who worked with Ransford for more than 20 years. "And possibly the most amazing thing about Joe was that everyone liked him. Even the guys he arrested liked him."
"I worked with a lot of great officers," said Raul Russi, a retired detective and former Ransford car partner. "All of them would tell you Joe was the best."
Ransford, who retired in early 1992 after a 29-year police career, died Saturday in a hospice facility near North Fort Myers, Fla., after a brief illness. He was 75.
Shortly before his retirement, Ransford estimated that he had made close to 5,000 career arrests, including murderers, rapists, holdup men, burglars and other criminals.
He was considered one of the most decorated officers in the department's history, receiving heroism awards from the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, the Mayor's Office, the Erie County Bar Association, The Buffalo News and many other organizations.
"When I arrest someone, no matter how bad they are, I treat him with respect," Ransford told a News reporter who was riding with him on the job one night in the 1980s. "And I treat his family with respect, too … People remember that stuff."
Because of that, Ransford told the reporter, people whom he had arrested and sent to jail sometimes helped him out years later when he was searching for information about a case. He said one man he had sent to jail even named one of his sons after him.
Growing up in the city's Lakeview and Commodore Perry public housing projects, Ransford said he knew as a youngster that he wanted to become a cop someday.
He said he grew up noticing how a really good police officer could be positive influence in a neighborhood.
A graduate of South Park High School, Ransford excelled in baseball and softball, a talent he continued to enjoy well into his 40s.
He joined the Buffalo Police in 1963 and was initially assigned to the Southside Station. Ransford rose through the ranks and served on the department's Tactical Task Force and Street Crime Unit. In 1981, he joined the Burglary Task Force, where he was promoted to the rank of detective sergeant. He broke up burglary rings, and with his partners — including Russi, William Sanders, the late Thomas Fay and the late Anthony Diamond — he solved major sex crime and murder cases.
The late James B. Cunningham, a colorful and outspoken Buffalo Police commissioner who died in 1984, once told a reporter that he trusted Ransford to take on the city's most difficult crime problems. "You can give him any job, and Joe will find a way to do it," Cunningham said.
"As far as I am concerned, he was the best street cop the Buffalo Police ever had," said Jackson, who rode with Ransford at times.
In 1985, Ransford and Sanders received a special award from then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin for arresting the killer of Squire Haskin, a church organist and choirmaster who was beaten to death during a burglary at his home. Ransford and Russi were honored by the mayor in 1980 for their capture of two suspects in connection with the brutal killings of two men who ran a clothing store on Broadway.
Joe was the "most tenacious, most aware-of-his-surroundings officer I have ever seen or worked with," Russi recalled. "Even in winter, he'd keep the windows open in our police car because he always wanted to hear what was going on around us."
Russi remembered a case in the late 1970s when a 12-year-old girl was raped in the city's Allentown neighborhood. Ransford was incensed about the crime and "absolutely determined" to catch the rapist.
"We came up with the suspect's name a few days after it happened. For the next three months, Joe asked every single person we saw where we could find this guy. The guy was in hiding," Russi said. "Finally, we caught up with him, cornered him and arrested him. Joe would never have given up on that one."
Over the years, Ransford was threatened, shot at, assaulted and on one occasion in 1980, badly injured by a man who hit him with a stolen car.
"We spotted the stolen car near Lafayette Square, and the guy smashed into our car while Joe was standing outside of the car," Russi said. "The car door wrapped around Joe's leg and seriously injured Joe's ankle. Joe went for hospital treatment, and we went right back out onto the street."
One of Ransford's talents was a near-photographic memory, according to Jackson and Ransford's son, Ronald Ransford, who followed him into police work.
"One night, he and I were in a room with a group of officers. Joe looked around the room, and said, 'I can tell you your license plate numbers,' " Jackson said. "He looked at three or four of us, and told us exactly what the plate numbers were on our personal cars. He had them memorized. I was flabbergasted."
Generally speaking, criminals do not like police officers, Jackson said. "But when you rode with Joe, he'd see some guy on a street corner, open his window and yell out the guy's name. The guy would yell back, 'Hey Joe!' Joe would wave to the guy and say, 'I arrested him in an armed robbery case years ago.' That's the kind of guy he was — unique."
In 1982, Ransford and Sanders rescued several people from a house fire on Broadway. "One of the guys they rescued was a man my dad arrested in a shooting three years earlier," Ronald Ransford said. "The guy said, 'Ransford, first you sent me to jail, now you're saving me!' "
Unhappy with what he called politics and understaffing in the police department, Ransford retired several years earlier than he had expected to. After leaving the police force, he worked as an investigator for the state's worker compensation system and as a private investigator. He also spent several years running a Lackawanna bar called the Billy Club, a popular hangout for police officers.
He lived in Buffalo and Florida during his retirement and enjoyed long walks and runs, and spending time with his grandchildren and his two dogs. He was a fan of Irish music and a devoted follower of the Cleveland Indians baseball team and Cleveland Browns football team.
In addition to his son, Ransford is survived by his wife, Sharon Bamberg; a daughter, Jennifer; a brother, Thomas; and two sisters, Janet Snajczuk and Kathleen Keller.
With his jokes and stories, Ransford was the life of every party, family members said. "He was proud of his career in police work and had a great outlook on life," his wife said. "Shortly before he died, Joe said, 'I've lived the best life. I've done what I wanted to do.' "
She added that her husband was an extremely devoted Catholic who "would drive 50 miles to get to church on a Sunday, if he had to."
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered on Aug. 15 at Our Lady of Victory Basilica, 767 Ridge Road, Lackawanna. Family members said the time of the Mass has yet to be determined and will be announced by the Nightengale Funeral Home.