For the first time in more than 15 years, there will be no incumbent on the ballot when county voters go to the polls next week to elect a new sheriff.
Niagara Falls police Capt. Ernest C. Palmer, a candidate with a political background and long career in law enforcement, squares off against political newcomer James C. Voutour, the sheriff's patrol chief picked by former Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein to run for the job.
As the Nov. 4 election date gets closer, the barbs between the candidates have grown sharper, with issues such as communication systems, budgets, dispatching and support from fellow law enforcement officers all being thrown into the mix.
The race started officially in August, when Beilein was appointed to the State Commission on Corrections, a three-member board that oversees compliance with state regulations for local jails. Beilein is the board's chairman.
The winner of the sheriff's race will serve the last year remaining on Beilein's term.
Voutour, who is running on the Democratic and Working Families lines, said that for him, the job of sheriff is not about politics.
"I really know this department well. It's been my heart and soul for 16 years," he said. "I have two passions in life. The first is my family, the second is my law enforcement career. I spend many, many extra hours at my work trying to do the best job I can do."
Should he win, Voutour said in a dig to Palmer's other activities, "I won't be a councilman. I won't be a tax preparer. I won't teach driving school. This will be my only . . . job. I will just be a sheriff."
Palmer said he was unsure if he would step down from his Lewiston Town Board seat if he were to win the sheriff's race.
He said he is unsure if legally he could hold both elected positions.
Palmer, 49, is running on the Republican, Independence and Conservative lines, and said the race is one of the most important sheriff's contests in decades.
"Voters are going to select a sheriff that could very well be the sheriff a dozen years from now, due to the power of incumbency," he said. "It would be wrong to vote based on political affiliation. People should vote based on which candidate has the most to offer the people of Niagara County."
Voutour, 42, said being a city cop was a much different job than working as a sheriff.
"We get picked on because we chase cows, but that's what sheriff's do," he said. "Arrests are not always the solution to a call. We're dealing with rural issues."
He said he has built up contacts in the county from 16 years on patrol.
"I can call any school or any business in this county and get a familiar person and resolve an issue. It takes years to get these contacts," Voutour said.
But experience with felony arrests is something that the Conservative Party cited in its endorsement of Palmer, saying it wanted a top lawman who has made hundreds of arrests for the most serious of crimes.
Palmer also received the endorsement of the police chiefs from the cities and towns in Niagara County.
"All seven of the police chiefs have endorsed me, and there's a reason for that," Palmer said. "It's because of distribution of money. What I propose is [establishing] the Niagara County Law Enforcement Council, which would meet monthly and would include a representative from the district attorney's office and the State Police.
"We need to identify funding sources and decide on distribution of funding that comes in such as homeland security and E-911, and also look for additional training opportunities for personnel. We've done a disservice by creating a fiefdom in Niagara County."
Right now, Palmer said, distribution gets determined by the Sheriff's Office.
He called the $3 million communications system a "debacle" that was chosen and completed by the Sheriff's Office, and said the money was "squandered" by the office.
The cities of Niagara Falls, Lockport and North Tonawanda voted against participating in the centralized communication plan because it cost too much to start up and took away the strength of home rule and chain of command, Palmer said.
"The technical flaws are another matter and could likely be resolved, but these are dire emergencies," he said. "In the last failure two months ago, there was no backup. It was a good thing Lockport and Niagara Falls didn't join in, because they . . . dispatched the calls."
Voutour said computers went down during an annual testing procedure, but the Sheriff's Office had a backup plan in place and didn't miss any calls because the calls were rerouted to Lockport and they were able to reach all their cars through cell phones.
"Obviously it concerned us greatly," he said, "and in our investigation we found a connection that wasn't made, and the vendor was contacted. It wasn't anything the Sheriff's Department did."
Palmer has other ideas as well as the county law enforcement council. He grew up near Love Canal in the Falls, and said that after recently learning about the hazardous waste coming in from Queensbury, near Albany, to CWM Chemical Services in Porter, he thought it would be important to more closely monitor trucks that are hauling the waste.
"Because of this threat to public safety, I propose the formation of an environmental crimes task force," he said. He said this group would be made up of members of the State Police, Sheriff's Department and state Department of Environmental Conservation, would make sure roadways are safe and clamp down on those who violate the law.
Palmer also said Niagara County has eight police departments, each with its own crime task force, and each that has to buy its own forensic equipment, which can be expensive. He proposed one centralized unit.
Voutour said he's been knocked continuously by the other side for a lack of experience, but that he has lots of experience and is in the prime of his career.
"Nobody has said that I'm not a good cop," he said. "Nobody has said that I'm not a good leader. Ernie has never worked a day in the Sheriff's Department. I know the people, the procedures, the budget, the jail."
He said police chiefs threw their support to Palmer because they didn't like how Beilein distributed his budget and made his decision about Enhanced-911.
Voutour received the endorsement of the captains in the Sheriff's Office, who called him a "hard working, humble and approachable leader whose door was always open" and described him as someone who was a "mentor to co-workers that shared his knowledge" and "worked hand-in-hand with other police agencies."
Voutour said that as sheriff, he would work and meet regularly with the chiefs. He added that there are some things he would like to see changed.
"One of the big changes I'd like is more communications between our drug task force, our road patrol and our investigators," he said.
Voutour said that if all of these people were put under one roof, they could share information and talk to each other and help move cases along.
He also said he would also like to lobby for lawmakers to hold video arraignments in the jail, rather than have deputies escort inmates to court.
Voutour said it was fair to say that Beilein handpicked him to run for sheriff and wanted to continue some of the programs Beilein was part of, such as regular meetings with the State Police. He called that cooperation very important.
"Also, we're going to be on the cutting edge of protecting kids against sexual predators with half a million dollars from [the U.S. Department of Justice Community Orientated Policing grants]. We're one of only 23 departments nationwide to receive this money. The reason we were picked was because of Sheriff Beilein's dedication and his passion," said Voutour.
Voutour denied claims made by Palmer that there was a lack of cooperation between State Police and Sheriff's Office, as the Palmer campaign has suggested. He said Palmer had been the one who is not cooperating.
"The burglary task force, the robbery task force, the Niagara County Drug Task Force, everybody is represented on that task force, except the City of Niagara Falls," he said. "Those people fall under [Palmer's] command. A countywide crime scene unit is great idea, I agree with him, but we already have a countywide drug task force and [the Niagara Falls Police Department] doesn't participate."
>The State Police
Silent dispatching, which lets a police agency respond to a call before sending another agency, has been another issue in the race.
Palmer said the Sheriff's Office silently dispatches calls and doesn't notify the closest car and said a memorandum of understanding between State Police and the Sheriff's Department for the closest car to respond was never signed.
"There's always been an animosity between the Niagara County sheriff and the State Police, and it's time to get over it," Palmer said. "It's a mind-set from the 1950s."
Voutour disagreed, and said his department is working with the State Police on a car compact. He said the department signed an agreement with the State Police in March to put automatic vehicle locators in cars -- but that the City of Niagara Falls is not participating.
Voutour said he would like to see all cars equipped with GPS units that would light up for dispatchers.
"We would have the ability," he said, "to have the light come on for a dispatcher and immediately call the closest car to the scene, from a barking dog to a plane crash."
Niagara County Sheriff
Two candidates are running in a special election to serve the one-year unexpired term of former Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein, who resigned to take a state job.
Candidate: Ernest C. Palmer
Ballot lines: Republican, Independence, Conservative
Residence: Town of Lewiston
Falls police chief of detectives; former police superintendent in Niagara Falls; former part-time chief in Youngstown.
Political experience: Lewiston town councilman since January 2007.
Education: Graduated from LaSalle High School in Niagara Falls in 1977; associate's degree in criminal justice from Niagara County Community College; completed law enforcement training at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.
Family: He and his wife, Michele, have been married for 13 years. He has five daughters.
Top three priorities: Reduce taxpayer burdens by centralizing police services and reducing lawsuits; ensure closest police car, regardless of agency, is dispatched to every emergency call; creation of a Niagara County law enforcement council to improve communication and effectiveness countywide.
Candidate: James C. Voutour
Ballot lines: Democratic, Working Families
Residence: Town of Lockport
Occupation: Niagara County Sheriff's Office chief of patrol
Political experience: None
Education: Graduated from Wilson Central High School in 1984; bachelor's of science degree in management and finance from Brockport State College; graduate of Chautauqua County Sheriff's Academy; graduate of both law enforcement executive institute and incident command; currently pursuing master's degree in criminal justice from John Jay College in New York City.
Family: He and his wife, Pilar, have been married for 12 years and have two daughters.
Top three priorities: Full implementation of a closest car compact for dispatching patrol cars using a new GPS tracking system in cars; identifying, tracking, monitoring and arrests of sex offenders; the continuous pursuit of drunken drivers and steady decline in fatalities through education and enforcement programs.