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Somerset severs ties with Barker police, forms its own force

There's a new constable in town.

Scratch that. There are three new constables in town, all with an eye toward using their law enforcement backgrounds to keep the peace in this rural community.

The part-time force began patrolling on April 1. It was formed after the Somerset Town Board voted in January to sever ties with the Barker Police Department after 22 years, a move that has caused some anger and criticism.

"We've taken control of costs," said Supervisor Daniel M. Engert, noting that the disagreement started as a budget issue, with the Town Board being asked to fund a majority of the $96,000 Barker village police budget, but then not being allowed to have any say on rising costs or operations.

"After not being able to reach an agreement with the village, we severed the contract Jan. 1 and began the process of establishing our own town police force," Engert said. "We also patrol the village, which is in the town, and we respond to calls in the village."

He said the constabulary got started with a used patrol car that cost $7,500 and used open office space in Town Hall to set up the department. He said running the force will cost $46,000.

The Barker Police Department will continue to operate as well, according to Village Mayor Herbert Meyer, who said he disagrees that the new constables will save the town money.

All three part-time officers, Roland "Rollie" B. Johnson, Patrick Needle and John Yotter, have an easy rapport with Engert and are decorated officers.

Johnson, a 2000 graduate of Barker Central School and a resident of Somerset, also serves as a full-time officer for the Middleport Police Department. Both Needle and Yotter are recently retired officers who asked to be part of the new force.

Yotter, of Wilson, is a retired detective lieutenant, who worked for the Lockport Police Department for 36 years. He was named New York State Police Officer of the Year in 1988.

Needle, of Newfane, is a retired sergeant from the Niagara County Sheriff's Office and was named Domestic Violence Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 1997 and Niagara County Deputy of the Year in 1999. He received Medals of Valor from the Sheriff's Office in 2001, 2005 and 2008.

Needle said that when he was on patrol he often worked in Somerset.

"The adjustment was easy because I was familiar with a lot of the guys. I didn't come in not knowing anybody," Needle said.

Engert, who put the force together, also works full time in law enforcement as an administrative captain for the Niagara County Jail. He will use these skills to run the new town constabulary.

"I believe we can do it just as well [as the Barker Police Department], but we needed control. We didn't need 88 hours of police service a week, but just presence at night," Engert said.

The three town constables will share 44 hours a week in enforcement, all at night, which Engert said is based on crime statistics of when additional police are needed.

He said his constables get out of the car and check doors and windows, doing building and house checks, patroling cemeteries and parks looking for signs of activity.

"That's true community policing, being proactive," Engert said. "Their focus is on protection of life and property in the Town of Somerset. It's important that we deliver a service, document it and do it professionally, and we go home safe at the end of the night."

Somerset, with a population of 2,300, has been criticized for moving away from the consolidation model and adding another layer of government, but Engert said he never considered removing local police coverage. He said the town's rural location, in the far eastern corner of Niagara County, puts it 35 minutes away from Sheriff's Office and State Police dispatch in Lockport.

"[Our officers] are not driving around at 65 miles per hour to get to the next town as maybe a Sheriff or State Police patrol are doing," Engert said.

But Engert said the final decision on town constables will be made by their community.

"We have volunteers who will be on the [new police board] who will determine whether this service is wanted and needed by our residents," Engert said. "I am here to represent the people. The constituents of Somerset, what do they want? I come from a law enforcement bent, but this police force will be evaluated by the public."