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How some cops cross the line
Hiring, training, monitoring questioned amid misconduct

A probationary officer resigned from the Lancaster Police Department after he was charged with beating a teenager at a New Year's party.

The Cheektowaga Town Board last month fired a town officer who exchanged threatening text messages with an ex-girlfriend.

And the trial of a Niagara Falls officer who faces a lengthy list of gun, drug and civil rights charges begins next month in federal court.

These high-profile cases have two noteworthy connections: The men were in their 20s at the time of the incidents, and each followed a long-serving father into the same department.

Law enforcement officials say police are less likely than the public as a whole to act badly.

"When you add up all the hundreds and hundreds of officers in Western New York, three is a tiny component of the law enforcement community," said Thomas H. Burton, a lawyer for the Buffalo police union.

But these and similar cases involving alleged police misconduct do raise questions about how officers are selected, trained, supervised and disciplined over the course of their careers.

"Departments are doing more than ever . . . trying to predict who's that officer who shouldn't be an officer," said Martin S. Floss, director of Hilbert College's Institute for Law and Justice. "With all that said, still, some do slip by."

Andrew T. Gill, 23, was a probationary officer with only a few weeks on the job with the Lancaster Police Department when he was arrested after a fight at a New Year's party.

A Lancaster teenager, Justin Mangold, alleges that Gill, without any provocation, repeatedly punched him at the party, though Gill's father, Gerald J. Gill Jr., said Mangold became "suddenly confrontational" with his son.

Gill resigned from the force two weeks later, and he faces a misdemeanor assault charge.

"It's a serious charge, and we're taking it very seriously," said his attorney, Patrick J. Brown.

David K. Robida, the fired Cheektowaga officer, received 19 commendations, but he was disciplined seven times by
the department during his seven years of active duty, according to the town.

"It sounds like there were some red flags there that were ignored," said Timothy N. Veiders, director of the criminal-justice program at Niagara County Community College.

Robida, now 31, was put on paid leave in 2008 after he exchanged threatening text messages with an ex-girlfriend. The town's hearing officer recommended suspending him for 60 days, but the Town Board instead fired him, citing what it considered his misleading answers during the investigation.

Police Chief Christine M. Ziemba said in a statement that Robida's conduct fell "well short" of department rules of conduct.

"I'm disappointed the way it turned out. The town picked an arbitrator, the arbitrator made a decision, and then they overturned his decision," Robida said. "It was a politically motivated decision."

Niagara Falls Police Officer Ryan G. Warme, 28, faces far more serious charges that he bought and sold cocaine, forced two women to perform sex acts on him and gave the license plate numbers of undercover police cars to drug dealers.

Warme has pleaded not guilty and is set to go to trial next month in federal court, said his lawyer, Joel L. Daniels.

Warme is in custody. The department has not taken steps to fire him at the request of prosecutors who want the criminal case resolved first, said Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella.

The cases have been hard for the officers' fathers, who served in the same departments.

"Needless to say, it's been awkward," said Gerald Gill, a detective lieutenant in Lancaster.

The Cheektowaga officer's father, Ronald L. Robida, who retired five years ago after a long career with the Cheektowaga police, said the bitter case has strained his relationship with some former colleagues.

"I can't attend union meetings anymore. Guys who used to talk to me don't talk to me anymore," said Ronald Robida, who staunchly defended his son.

Warme's father, Gordon T. Warme, and his brother have ties to the Niagara Falls police, and Chella said the case has been painful for them.

"[Gordon Warme] was a decorated, award-winning captain here," Chella said. "Nobody has anything bad to say about him. Ryan's brother, Officer Scott Warme, absolutely does a phenomenal job for us."

A large number of men and women in area police and fire departments followed in the footsteps of their older siblings, parents or grandfathers. This isn't strictly a case of nepotism, officials said, because police candidates must score well on civil service exams and pass psychological and physical tests, even before they take on the rigors of academy training.

"You've got to get the job on your own," said retired Buffalo Police Inspector Patrick G. Stafford, now a lawyer. "[Relatives] can't take your test for you."

Are there advantages to bringing in "legacy" officers?

Some law enforcement officials said those officers may come in better prepared because they have a stronger sense of what to expect and what is required.

There may be a downside, as well, if departments with too many legacy officers become too insular or if the child of an officer feels "a bit of entitlement," said Floss of Hilbert.

But he and others did not say that such officers are more likely to engage in misconduct.

There is another, unsurprising connection among the cases: The men were in their 20s at the time of the alleged offenses.

In general, Floss and other experts said, crime tends to be a young person's game.

Younger officers tend to generate more complaints than their more senior colleagues, Stafford said, in part because they often are more aggressive and more active.

"They're highly motivated to make an impression," he said.

Older officers have the maturity and common sense that come from their years of experience.

Ronald Robida insists that his son was a good officer who learned from his mistakes, while Gerald Gill said he believes that his son would be a good cop if given the chance.

But these cases raise the question of whether police departments do a good enough job sorting out the people who might not have the temperment to serve as officers.

Since 2005, the Amherst Police Department has handled about 50 cases in which a member of the public complained about an officer, or a supervisor wrote a disciplinary report about an officer, according to Assistant Police Chief Timothy M. Green.

Of those, only three or four resulted in disciplinary action.

In an effort to show that firing him would go beyond the punishment meted out for similar transgressions, Robida gained access to records of disciplinary action imposed by Ziemba against 12 other officers.

Of those, three officers and one probationary officer had resigned in the face of departmental charges, and one case was pending, but the other seven officers remain on the force. They include one unnamed officer who was reprimanded or suspended nine times over five years.

But most cops do their jobs well, officials said.

"I think what probably makes it more newsworthy is the very people who are trusted with enforcing the law are accused of breaking it. I just think a brighter light is shined on them," said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.

Daniel J. Bauer, a senior instructor at the Erie Community College Law Enforcement Training Academy, knew Andrew Gill. Veiders is a former coordinator of the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy, where Ryan Warme graduated. Both men said nothing they saw raised any concerns about Gill's or Warme's future prospects.

Officials say potential officers must pass through intensive screening and training.

Amherst officers, for example, must complete an 18-month probationary period that includes 24 weeks at the Erie County academy and at least 10 weeks in a field officer training program.

"It's a pretty thorough process from the start," Veiders said.

With fewer two-officer patrol cars, there may be less supervision from fellow officers today, Stafford said, but more eyes are watching young officers because of the proliferation of video cameras, cell phone cameras and GPS-equipped cars.

Officials say these examples show that departments, when made aware of alleged police misbehavior, will respond to it appropriately.

This is important because of the special place police officers hold in society, said David A. Rivera, a member of the Buffalo Common Council who served 25 years with the city police.

"They have to understand from the very beginning that they have an awesome amount of power and responsibility," he said, "and with that comes accountability."

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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