John R. Chella always knew he wanted to be a police officer when he grew up.
He had no idea his boyhood dream would take him to the top of the Niagara Falls Police Department, capping an almost-40-year career that will conclude with his retirement at the end of the week.
"It's time," the 62-year-old Chella said earlier this month. "It's hard to explain, but a light goes off in your head when you know it's time. That light went off."
Chella, who has served as superintendent for the past eight years, announced his retirement earlier this month. The seven badges displayed on his wall tell some of the story of his 39 1/2 years with the department, including 21 years in Narcotics, working his way up from patrolman to detective to lieutenant to chief. He said his only regret is not trying out more badges, so he would be familiar with more roles when he became chief.
"We're going to find a replacement, but in a lot of ways he's irreplaceable," Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. "He's likely leaving behind a legacy in the Niagara Falls Police Department that is going to be of lasting impact."
Chella is credited with expanding the role of community policing, reaching out to neighborhood groups, working with other police agencies and using computerized data to focus department resources where they are needed most.
"No matter what group came to the table, he gave his ear to them," said Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour. "He's kind of been like the people's chief. He used a very good theory of law enforcement -- get the community involved. He got everybody involved in law enforcement."
"I've been told so many times from people across the state that we are a model program for Operation IMPACT," Dyster said of the state-funded program that has paid for a computer analyst and overtime to reduce crime.
Each year, Chella has reported reductions in city crime using Operation IMPACT. He attributed those reductions to putting more officers on the street and equipping them with more information about crime and criminals.
"We are not crime-free," Chella said in his latest crime update. "I am not foolish enough to say we are the safest community in America, but I will rely on my crime analyst to tell me how we are doing. If we are not doing OK, then we will redeploy to effect a reduction in crime."
Chella said he learned the value of hard work from his father, Domenic, who was an executive chef, but both he and younger brother Robert chose careers that kept them far from the kitchen. While John Chella was rising through the ranks in Niagara Falls, Robert Chella was serving as the deputy police commissioner for the Buffalo Police Department.
Chella looks back on his career with pride, nostalgia and a realization that the officers following in his footsteps are likely to deal with more violence than he did.
"It has gotten a lot scarier," he said of the patrol officer's job. "It's a lot different today than when I came on. A lot. You've always got to be on guard today."
He recalled that his first service revolver was a .38-caliber six-shooter. That weapon would be no match for the guns criminals use today, he said.
"Automatic weapons now carry that amount [six shots] in one clip. It's not that we want to carry more ammunition, but it's what the potential is that we are facing," he said.
Chella said he decided to retire after the November elections to ensure the naming of his successor, who has not been announced.
"I'm confident in [Dyster's] ability to pick the right guy to continue what we're doing and what we've done," Chella said.
Administrative Capt. John DeMarco has been tapped to take over as interim police chief while a search for Chella's replacement is carried out. DeMarco plans to retire in a year or two and is not expected to take the top spot permanently, according to Dyster.
Chella said he would like to see someone from inside the Niagara Falls Police Department take the top spot.
"Everyone wants to be chief, but it's not all glory and praise. It's a very hard job," Chella said. "You are trying to manage 175 people here and also make sure the needs of the residents are addressed."
Dyster agreed, saying Chella took over the department at a challenging time, when the department was being asked to change its ways of doing things.
"The ground was shifting underneath him, and it required a chief who was willing to represent the department to the outside world and also go back and be the messenger to the department," Dyster said. "He did not shy away from this role in the least."
Dyster noted that Chella has been working on agreements with the U.S. Attorney General's Office to diversify hiring and to reform the "use of force" policies.
"There's been a very intensive effort to fulfill these obligations," Dyster said.
Dyster also pointed out that Chella helped to oversee the department's move to a new headquarters three years ago.
"We came through that with flying colors," Dyster said.
Indeed, Chella said, the two things of which he is most proud are the new building and the overall approach that he helped develop in the department.
"There is no handbook," Chella said, offering advice for his successor. "The No. 1 thing is, he has to be a chief for his department and he has to be a chief for the community."