A Buffalo police lieutenant accused of terrorizing a group of people in South Buffalo over the weekend has had a longtime drinking problem, several police sources said Monday.
"He has had a problem with alcohol for several years, but none of it occurred on duty," one source said of Lt. Michael Schuta of the South District.
Other sources said that various people in the department have talked to the lieutenant in an attempt to get him into treatment.
One source, citing the lieutenant's past problems with alcohol, said he had not had an alcohol-related incident in the past two or three years.
"He's a good cop and a good guy," the source added.
Schuta enrolled in the department's Employee Assistance Program on Sunday, the day after the incident, according to Police Benevolent Association President Robert P. Meegan Jr.
"Apparently, he sees the need for professional counseling," Meegan said.
Meegan would not comment on any possible drinking problem, but he did say, "I want to make it clear that it has nothing to do with drugs."
Schuta has been cited several times for heroic police acts, including earlier this year when he was awarded the Edward H. Butler Gold Award for heroism, for helping capture a shooting suspect.
On Monday, Schuta was suspended without pay after being charged by the department with conduct unbecoming an officer. Police officials also have accused him of leaving his on-duty post without permission.
Four people have claimed that the lieutenant, still dressed in his uniform and talking incoherently, held his service weapon against several people's heads and threatened to kill them early Saturday morning on Smith Street.
The department's Professional Standards Division will conduct its own investigation into the matter and submit its findings to the Erie County district attorney's office for possible prosecution, Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said Monday.
If Schuta had a previous drinking problem, as has been claimed, why was no action ever taken against him?
"Officially, you can only take action when there's a specific violation of department rules," Kerlikowske replied.
The commissioner also had to field questions Monday about why Schuta wasn't charged with drunken driving, after the victims claimed he was highly intoxicated. Kerlikowske explained that police didn't confront the lieutenant until he had returned to the South District headquarters.
Police sources said they had no idea why the lieutenant went to the Smith Street address or whether he knew anyone in that crowd of people. Schuta was working the 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at the time of the incident.
On Sunday, police spokesman Lt. Duane Rizzo, acting on Kerlikowske's behalf, issued a public apology over the incident.
"I'd like to reiterate that apology," the commissioner said Monday. "People expect when they see an officer in uniform that he's there to help and be trusted. An action like the one alleged here doesn't help in fostering that trust."