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Sean Kirst: Looking for aspiring cops who share Lehner's special gifts

There is a particular call police receive like clockwork, Tommy Champion said. A desperate mother or father will ask for help, saying a teenage son or daughter is out of control.

The parent asks, "Could someone just stop by and talk to them?"

It is hardly what you dream about when you get into policing. Teenage rebellion is as old and complicated as humanity itself. It would be easy to grit your teeth through such moments, to offer a few stern generalities about respect and then to get out fast, amid a busy shift.

Officer Craig Lehner never handled it that way. He was as good at those situations as anyone Champion, his longtime partner, has ever seen.

"He'd take the kid aside, and the kid would be upset, and Craig would be using this soft voice and saying, 'Come on, man, come on,' " Champion said last week, with appreciation.

Sometimes a teen would notice the array of tattoos Lehner had on both his arms. The conversation would veer into the origin of those designs. Out of nowhere, Lehner and the teen would actually start talking.

Officers Tommy Champion and Craig Lehner in 2013, after receiving a Buffalo Police Department award for their arrest efficiency as partners. (Image courtesy of Detective Tommy Champion)

In that quiet voice, without threat or anger, Lehner would make the points he hoped would stick:

Your folks love you. Give them a chance. Use your head.

"He was selfless," Champion said. "He had outrageous conviction. If he felt it in his heart, if he knew it was right, he was going to do it."

Champion said the entire purpose of a new Lt. Craig Lehner Memorial Scholarship, offered through the Judges and Police Executives Conference of Erie County, is to seek out the same innate qualities his friend brought to the job.

Lehner, 34, a K-9 officer in Buffalo, died in October in a police diving accident in the Niagara River. Those who knew him best say it remains impossible to express the magnitude of what was lost.

"Craig treated everyone with respect," said Detective Lucia Esquilin Schultz, another longtime friend. "He loved the City of Buffalo, the whole city."

Schultz said she often encounters  a painful breach of trust between the police and residents in many neighborhoods. The scholarship, she said, is one quiet step toward healing those divisions. Organizers hope it will be worth at least $1,000 and may go higher, based on donations. High school seniors planning a career in law enforcement can find applications at www.judgespolice.org, and the deadline for applying is May 11.

The mission is encouraging young people with an intuitive understanding of what it takes to become a great cop.

In January, Schultz and Champion were promoted to detective. They also decided this year to join the police and judges conference, an 86-year-old nonprofit organization where Champion now serves as chairman.

The idea for the scholarship came from conference president A.J. Verel and Andre Samoel, a board member and another friend of Lehner's. "It made perfect sense for our mission," said Verel, who said his group received the support of Lehner's family for what Champion sees as an entirely different kind of scholarship.

[Sean Kirst: A police dog runs to the river in fierce loyalty to missing officer]

Champion grew up on the East Side, within the city's African-American community. Lehner was raised in rural Akron. Their close friendship embodies the larger goal. The idea is identifying students with the kind of compassion, humor and courage that allowed Lehner to transcend potential boundaries in the city.

"I want a kid who's just as dedicated, just as selfless, just as respectful to all people," Champion said.

He and Lehner were partners for almost a decade, a connection forged during a time when Lehner was occasionally deployed with the Army National Guard. Champion has no doubt that Lehner would have climbed into the highest ranks of the police K-9 unit, and possibly into the leadership tiers of the entire department.

"A lot of what made him great were all these skills and intangibles that you can't really teach," said Champion, who recalled that he and Lehner were honored with a mayor's award of merit in 2013 for the number of suspects, wanted by police, they were able to track down.

Tommy Champion, chairman of the Judges and Police Executives Conference, with conference president A.J. Verel, talk about a new scholarship that honors the late Craig Lehner's strengths as a Buffalo police officer. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Tributes to Officer Craig Lehner

Those investigative skills meshed with a sense of empathy. At Lehner's funeral, Champion offered a story of how he first realized Lehner would make a good partner. When the two men were in training and barely knew each other, they responded separately to an angry landlord-tenant dispute.

Champion watched as Lehner spoke patiently to the upset tenant, a man with little going right in his life.

That affirmation of a stranger's dignity said everything.

"Craig kept himself open," Champion said, "to the experience of people from many different backgrounds."

The same point was made by Sean Stokey, a cashier at Frank's Mobil on Main Street, where Champion and Lehner often stopped during their shift.

"He'd ask how your day was going," Stokey said, "and then he'd take that little extra time to really listen."

Champion and Lehner saw each other away from work almost as much as they did on the job. They often shot the breeze while tinkering with the engines of their classic cars. Those conversations could "get pretty intense," Champion said, recalling long philosophical talks about the causes of struggle and suffering in city neighborhoods.

Buffalo Police Detective Tommy Champion near a spontaneous riverfront memorial at Broderick Park to his longtime partner, Craig Lehner, who died in October during a police diver training exercise. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"He was a very cerebral, smart, methodical guy," Champion said. Lehner, he said, was not afraid to make a change. He would shake up his life if he felt it was getting too predictable, as he did when he left patrol to work with Shield, the trained German shepherd that was always at his side.

"Once he got there," said Schultz, another good friend, "everything he did revolved around that dog."

She met Lehner years ago, even before she joined the department. She and Champion had been friends since high school, a connection reinforced when she became an officer. Schultz often joined Lehner, Champion and other friends for days at the beach or for dinners at the old Papaya, on Chippewa Street.

[Sean Kirst: A photographer captures lasting image of Officer Craig Lehner]

They assumed those bonds would endure until they retired.

Schultz lives around the corner from Champion. She was home last October on a Friday when her phone exploded with messages, fellow officers warning her of the desperate search at the river. Schultz, distraught, hurried to Champion's house. He wasn't there. She began calling or texting him, again and again.

At that moment, Champion was in a dentist's chair. He ignored his phone until he realized something must be wrong. He put the phone to his ear. To his shock, Schultz was weeping.

"They've lost Craig," she said, three words Champion cannot forget.

This scholarship, then, is more than a simple memorial.

To Lehner's friends, it is a search for outrageous conviction.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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