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Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins entered law enforcement more than four decades ago wondering if he was making the right career choice.

Assembled with 30 other young recruits in the Buffalo police commissioner's office for a swearing-in ceremony on July 15, 1956, Higgins thought about his days growing up in the old First Ward "where the cops were always chasing us."

The second oldest of nine children and son of Irish immigrants asked himself: "What am I doing here?" as he recited the oath of office.

Now, more than 41 years later and only days away from his year-end retirement, Higgins unquestionably knows police work was the right choice for him.

"There was all the excitement. You never knew what would happen next. There was no routine. It was an absolute adventure. You saw life at its rawest," said 67-year-old Higgins in recalling his early days as a street cop in Buffalo.

The thrill was often tempered by tragedy.

He said he has seen generations of criminals produced in homes broken by poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence. But the saddest and most shocking moment of his career, he said, came when he was working as a police lieutenant.

"We had gone on a domestic call at Michigan Avenue and Broadway. The father of a 4-year-old boy had weekend custody and the mom didn't want to give up the child. After we arrived and her own mother intervened, she consented and made up a bag of clothes and food for the child.

"Three hours later, we received a call of a suspicious person who looked like he had dropped a bundle into bushes on North Fillmore Avenue. When I arrived at the scene, I was told by the officers 'Lieutenant, you're not going to like what you see.'

"I looked over the bushes and there was the same boy in a diaper with a butcher knife sticking out of his stomach. It was a sight I'll never forget. It was later shown that the child had 27 stab wounds. The father was captured that night and ultimately sent to prison."

One of Higgins' first orders of business after becoming sheriff in 1986 was to form a Family Offense Unit, which specializes in investigating crimes against children.

"We anticipated maybe a couple hundred cases a year, but in the first year we had over 700," said Higgins, who served the Buffalo Police Department for 21 years.

He also oversaw centralizing orders of protection, so that members of Western New York police agencies could have access to them at any time of day or night.

"Many times, women under siege lose or misplace the orders of protection," Higgins said.

That explains his motivation for working with the Erie County Family Court and Central Police Services to have the information placed in computerized files "for instantaneous access."

Joseph F. Crangle, one of Higgins' earliest political supporters, said the outgoing sheriff will be remembered for countywide improvements in the delivery of law enforcement services.

"He's a very, very good example of what the Democratic Party stands for -- service to people -- yet at the same time, he kept professional integrity in law enforcement," said Crangle, the former chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.

Higgins, Crangle added, was never afraid to speak his mind.

"He didn't let other people intimidate him. He'd go to the county executive and County Legislature and tell them his needs for the Sheriff's Department," Crangle said.

The quest to become sheriff, Higgins said, was a "natural progression" for him. He had served for nine years as the undersheriff.

"I was always a guy trying to get ahead," said Higgins, who has served three four-year terms as head of the 625-member department.

In 1992, he tried to make the jump from law enforcer to law creator, running in a primary for the Democratic line in the 30th Congressional District race. County Executive Gorski won the contest and lost in the November race to Republican Jack Quinn.

Gorski had only kind words to say about Higgins, who often dueled with him over expenditures for the Sheriff's Department.

"Tom served the community for a long time and he served it well," the executive said. "Despite his differences with me, he always acted in the best interest of his department."

Many others also agreed that Higgins put the Sheriff's Department first.

"I saw the credibility of the department build among the suburban police agencies. He was a street cop who had credibility. He instituted the helicopter patrols and increased patrols of the waterways," said Christopher C. Clark, who recently advanced to director of the Erie County Probation Department after serving 24 years in the Sheriff's Department.

Brian D. Doyle, who succeeded Clark as the department's chief of administrative operations, said Higgins has prepared the department for the next century.

One of the controversies to dog the sheriff during his tenure involved his son Timothy, a department detective, who was accused of police brutality.

Higgins said his son was unfairly targeted because of his name.

"If he had been Timothy Jones" the cases would have been treated in a routine manner, the sheriff said, adding that the claims of abuse are now in the past.

At 17, Thomas Francis Higgins plunged into the work world. He quit high school, explaining, "I just couldn't stand going to South Park High School hungry anymore." He worked a factory job at the former Donner, Hanna Coke Corp. but joined the U.S. Marine Corps when the Korean War started.

On returning home from the battlefield, Higgins obtained his general equivalency diploma and later he would earn three college degrees.

"I remember him organizing study groups for the lieutenant and captain exams. We would all study together," said Buffalo Lt. Kevin Kelly of the Narcotics-Vice Bureau. "Tom was responsible for me and a lot of other young police officers taking those exams."

Higgins in 1996 crowned his lifelong pursuit of education with a master's degree in history from Buffalo State College. He wrote a 100-page thesis on the Ports Treaty between Great Britain and the Irish Free State.

The South Buffalo Irishman is fiercely proud of his ancestry. He has visited his parents' native Ireland seven times over the years.

Higgins' father, for whom he is named, arrived in Buffalo in 1925 filled with the same ambition he would pass on to his son. It took only a year for the elder Higgins to save enough money to send for his mother, a sister and his fiancee, whom he married 12 months later.

That early wave of Higgins family members is all but gone, save the sheriff's 89-year-old aunt, Mary E. Higgins Mahoney. A resident of Westchester County, she speaks fondly of her nephew.

"We're all very proud of Tom. He was always a very hard worker," Mrs. Mahoney said.

Higgins is also very proud of his accomplishments. A look inside his Delaware Avenue office is revealing.

It is filled with mementos from his years of public service. Among the most treasured is the Silver Helmet Award, the highest honor given by the AMVETS. A copy of a brochure from the 1991 awards ceremony shows snapshots of the various Silver Helmet recipients.

"You may know one of them," said Higgins as he smiled and pointed to a photograph of Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There are other photographs of Higgins with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and with former Gov. Mario Cuomo. The pictures serve as road marks in a career that has scaled one of the highest peaks in local law enforcement.

Higgins, who decided against seeking a fourth term, said his job as sheriff is nearly over, that he leaves the department in good shape for Sheriff-elect Patrick Gallivan.

And, the old sheriff has some advice for the new sheriff:

"Stay close to the job. Be careful about the small details because overnight they can turn into big things. Most of all, look after the children of our community. They're our most precious resource and the most vulnerable to crime."

In retirement, Higgins plans to do more skiing and spend time with his three grandchildren. His wife, Shirley, "will keep me busy around the house while she continues to work part-time in retail."

But can a man who has worked for decades in the public spotlight just stop working?

Higgins promptly answered "No," and added he is considering his options and may pursue a career in the private sector.

Doing what?

"I've had an attractive offer, but at this point I don't want to elaborate," he said.

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