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Ziemba to retire after 9 years as Cheektowaga police chief; Force's 1st woman broke new ground

A testament to the changing times of the three decades that Christine Ziemba spent climbing the ranks in the Cheektowaga Police Department is mounted on the wall of her office.

It is a copy, in metal plate, of the 1976 story that announced her hiring at 21. "Woman Trailblazes her way onto Cheektowaga Police Force," The Buffalo News headline reads.

In the photo, she had long blond hair that was reminiscent of the undercover officer Peggy Lipton in the 1970s "Mod Squad" TV show.

"I was well aware of certainly being in the fishbowl," Ziemba, now 56, said of her early career, which included some undercover work as a drug buyer and a rape decoy.

"Your success determines whether there's going to be seconds or thirds."

Ziemba, both the town's first female officer and its first female chief, will retire after nine years leading the $15.7 million department of 129. Her legacy includes efforts to bring neighborhoods together and address social shifts in a town known for its working-class Polish stock.

On the edge of the city, with its modest homes, airport, expansive Walden Galleria and ribbons of intersecting highways, Cheektowaga has an increasingly elderly and diverse population.

The town has changed from the 1980 census' count of 92,000, with 98.6 percent white and less than 2 percent minority population, to a more mixed group in the 2005-2009 estimate: 75,000 residents, 88.6 percent white and almost 10 percent black, Hispanic and Asian.

Police recruiting efforts -- on bus shelters, websites, on public access TV -- have not yet led to the hiring of African-Americans, who make up 8 percent of the population.

Ziemba, herself of Polish descent, believes the department, now with nine women and one Hispanic officer, should reflect the community.

"You need to be aware of cultural differences," she said.

One pastor credits her awareness and intervention for softening a racist reaction at his New Creation Fellowship Church. After the mixed congregation of 1,000 moved to Genesee Street in the early 1990s, the Rev. Stephen Andzel said, locals seemed to react to the church as if they were being "invaded by the inner city."

Problems at the time included a racial epithet spray-painted on the church. Ziemba, then a lieutenant charged with the department's community outreach efforts, went to church functions. So did other officers.

"The sparks stopped flying, and people started getting along," Andzel said. "If it wouldn't be for her, who knows? This stuff might still be going on."

To think of it now, Ziemba agreed the adjustment to racially mixed newcomers was slow.

"Not all communities, I guess, adapt well to change," she said. "I think some people in the community were fearful."

She said she used her position in the department to make a public example of her belief that people who live in a community should feel part of it. She went to other services at churches she wasn't a member of, organized neighborhood block clubs and talked to girls at schools about being self-aware and using confidence to thwart crime.

"I thought it was important to be out and be active and be visible," she said.

To help police connect with neighborhoods and vice versa, she set up an annual weeks-long Citizen Police Academy about 15 years ago. People who sign up -- a new session starts Feb. 16 -- get lessons in crime investigation and can ride on patrols.

"I think it's important that the community has that feeling of closeness with its police department," she said. "This takes the mystery out of who we are."

When residents said in surveys that they wanted more police on the streets, the department used grants to increase patrols on foot, bicycle and Segway.

It was the connection with people and eclectic job responsibilities that first made police work attractive to her when she was a young woman. She moved from the city to Cheektowaga with her "average blue collar" family in the 1960s when she was in high school.

"A move to the suburbs was seen as moving up," she said.

In college, she got more interested in the profession when she worked as a secretary in the town's Youth Bureau. She was impressed by how officers worked with kids who were in trouble and helped crime victims.

"You got to be a little bit of everything to a lot of people," she said.

After starting at Erie Community College, she finished a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Buffalo State College, worked as a campus police officer and was hired by Cheektowaga soon after she graduated.

Her instinct for collaboration and making community connections led to success in her 34-year career. This included talks with girls in schools about how to avoid an attacker, which led one mother to praise her. The woman's daughter came home after school excited by the know-how to keep safe that included carrying herself with confidence.

"People look for easy victims," Ziemba said.

Barbara Bartle said her block club, one of about 30 current clubs that Ziemba began to set up more than a decade ago, has made her feel safer in her North Cheektowaga neighborhood, near the Airport Plaza. At the monthly meetings with members of other clubs, Bartle has found out about people released on parole and a rash of car break-ins.

"I feel a little bit more protected," she said. "It gives you a feeling that the police are looking out for you."

Now, newly married for the last three years to William Kricfalusi, Ziemba compared her life to a book. She is on the page that says, "It's time to open another chapter."

Next week, the Town Board intends to interview Capt. David Zack for the chief position and talk about whether to consider candidates from outside the department.

Ziemba was guarded about her plans for the future. She wants to keep her private life private, but she is proud of what she has revealed to Andzel, Bartle and the young woman whose mother thanked her for getting her daughter excited about her power to keep herself safe.

"Throughout the years, I've met thousands of people," Ziemba said. "I'd like to think I've made an impression."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com