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Blue line protects off-duty cops behind wheel

Before Michael E. Haug's Jeep plowed into a stopped motorcyclist this summer - launching the biker forward, tearing his small intestine, bruising internal organs, breaking a leg in three places, ripping off his helmet and landing him on his head - Haug had been stopped at least once before for erratic and possibly impaired driving.
But Haug had been working as an Erie County sheriff's deputy for about two years and was inside the fraternity of law enforcement officers who, for the most part, are slow to write up those who wear the badge.
No tickets were written or charges filed after Haug was stopped in 2009. He was turned over to his Sheriff's Office superiors - an example of police discretion or, perhaps, the blue line.
"The blue line, or whatever you want to call it, is awful," said one law enforcement veteran who asked to remain unidentified in this article because he's still on patrol. "I have stopped cops and just walked away going, 'I just hope he gets home.'
"Because here's the thing: That same guy who you are pulling over might be your backup tomorrow night. Or his buddy who you just wrote will hate you and tell everybody that you are nothing but a piece of [expletive] or whatever. So it's just not worth it."
Gregory A. Gawley worked for the Lackawanna Police Department and as a firearms instructor at the Erie Community College police academy.
"I'll be honest with you," he said, "I have pulled guys over, and they have said, 'Don't you know I'm a cop with such and such agency?' "
Gawley, however, says he didn't appreciate the question. His reaction: "Don't treat me like an idiot just because you screwed up."
Police also call it "professional courtesy" - forgiving the infractions committed by one of their own. It typically involves speeding, but officers can get a pass for erratic or impaired driving as well. Professional courtesy can extend to the close relatives of police officers, and to the prosecutors, judges and politicians who are part of the system. Some examples that have leaked out:
. An off-duty sheriff's deputy reportedly smelling of alcohol was ticketed with only a minor traffic infraction after an accident near Akron in August 2011. Months later, he drove into a house and pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated.
. An off-duty Hamburg lieutenant faced no citation in July after drifting across the oncoming lane and flattening a private cement wall on Lake Shore Road in Evans.
. A Buffalo cop watched a former Erie County prosecutor back into a parked car outside a waterfront restaurant but didn't question her fitness to drive. She later drove off and drew a DWI charge after a motorist called 911 to express alarm about her weaving auto.
Professional courtesy goes on across the country but runs especially strong among police in the Northeast, said Tim Dees, a retired officer from the Reno, Nev., police department and author of a book titled "The Truth About Cops."
In an essay about the subject, he admitted that he, too, went along with professional courtesy.
"In the early part of my career, I stopped many cops who were driving recklessly and a couple who were drunk," he wrote. "My fear of ostracism by my peers outweighed my sense of justice. Later on, I got over this."

Haug's second chance

Deputy Michael Haug seems to be one of those lawmen who caught a break because of his job. He resides in the Village of Kenmore and had been driving off duty when Town of Tonawanda police stopped him in the fall of 2009. There were no charges. Haug was referred to his commanding officers at the Erie County Sheriff's Office as someone they should deal with because, in Tonawanda, he was out of second chances.
"We had an incident where our guys stopped him," Tonawanda Police Chief Anthony Palumbo said. "In their estimation, he'd been drinking and was a little out of line. We contacted the duty commander of the Sheriff's department that night ... and basically turned him over to them. My understanding was that they did something internally."
Unknown to Palumbo, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard's top staff told Haug to seek help through the department's employee assistance program, and there are indications he did so.
"That was our attempt at getting him straightened out," Palumbo explained of his department's decision three years ago to turn Haug over to his employer. "Apparently, that didn't work very well," he said.
It didn't work very well for motorcyclist Daniel Colosimo, 37, a husband and father who had just beaten Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Today, Colosimo is missing a portion of his skull. Doctors removed it after the crash because his brain had swelled, and they tucked it under the skin near his waist, so it remains with the body until it can be returned to his head, family members said. At the moment, only a flap of skin covers part of his brain. He must don a special helmet anytime he tests his shaky legs and reaches for his walker.
The accident resonated within the Sheriff's Office. Among Haug's stops on the night of Friday, Aug. 3, was the Grand Island home of John A. Anthony, one of Sheriff Howard's appointees. Anthony is chief of the department's civil division and an accomplished poker player who throws poker games at his home, deputies told The Buffalo News.
"Yes, Haug was at John's house earlier on Friday," Mark Wipperman told The News. (Wipperman, the department's undersheriff, was chief of its professional standards unit when Town of Tonawanda police warned sheriff's officials about Haug in 2009.)
He said that by the time Haug tapped him on the shoulder to say good night, around 10:30 p.m., he had not seen him drink anything, not even a soft drink let alone liquor.
"He was sober," Wipperman said.
But Haug, after leaving Anthony's house, went to a bar.
"Wish he would have went home instead," Wipperman added.
If Haug, 28, wanted a cautionary tale about a law enforcement officer getting jammed up with a DWI, he didn't have to look far. Just weeks earlier, minutes after midnight on June 12, a Chevrolet Silverado driven by his partner, Deputy Daniel Milbrandt, knocked into a Honda Civic in a McDonald's drive-through lane at 1385 Niagara Falls Blvd.
Milbrandt talked with the other driver, then drove off, Amherst police said. An officer stopped him on the Youngmann Highway and charged him with DWI, leaving the scene of a property damage accident and driving at an imprudent speed.
Haug would soon find himself in much the same situation: a lawman charged with DWI. But the aftermath - twisted metal and life-threatening injuries - was much worse.

The crash

Haug eventually arrived at the same spot as Colosimo, the Blu Martini Bar on Evans Road in Amherst. Though they didn't know one another, they left at roughly the same time, and their lives changed forever minutes later, around 4 a.m. on Aug. 4, at Bailey Avenue and Sheridan Drive in Amherst.
Daniel Colosimo told his family that the last thing he remembers from that night was adjusting his helmet's chin strap as he waited at the light. That might explain why his helmet flew off when he was flung up into the Jeep's windshield as it barreled into him from behind and was then thrown forward about 60 feet into the intersection.
Colosimo's family wonders what might have happened had Haug been charged in 2009.
Would he have been less willing to risk another impaired driving arrest?
"My guess is, if he had thought that he couldn't get away it, he might not have driven drunk," said Jerry Colosimo, Daniel's older brother, who also stressed that Haug is innocent until proven guilty.
"People who are serving the public, like an officer, should be held to a higher standard," he said. "They are the ones enforcing the law."
Jerry Colosimo figures that Haug, if convicted of DWI and vehicular assault, would face a deservedly more severe penalty had he also been charged and convicted three years ago.
"With him not having any priors, he might get a year, and he'd actually serve months less. He won't do any hard time," he said.
People who don't carry badges go free with simple warnings, too, said Palumbo, the Tonawanda police chief.
"Officers always, when it comes to the Vehicle and Traffic Law, have discretion. The law allows them that," he said. "... In cases like this, the focus is always: 'Why wasn't that police officer arrested? He was let go because he was a police officer.'
"I can tell you that my officers on occasion have let citizens go with a warning or because of circumstances. They exercise their discretion. For me to tell you that 100 percent of people who are stopped that have been drinking get arrested, that's wrong," Palumbo said. "Citizens get the benefit of that discretion as well."

Close-knit organization

Still, police do cut slack for each other.
Buffalo police began a criminal investigation in 2002 when a man was seen striking a woman and knocking her to the ground on Chippewa Street. State police asked to take over the probe because the suspect was a state trooper, Titus Z. Taggart. Taggart was suspended for three days rather than prosecuted criminally. A decade later, he was fired during a probe into his involvement with prostitutes.
Professional courtesy can benefit others in the system - judges, prosecutors, politicians.
When law professor and former county prosecutor Anne Adams drove backwards into a car in the Shanghai Reds parking lot in September 2008, an indication that she might have drunk too much, a Buffalo police officer saw the mishap and drove over to inquire.
"Counselor, where are you going?" he asked, but he took no further action. In the car with her was Joseph Makowski, a State Supreme Court justice who later resigned over the way he tried to cover for Adams.
Soon after Adams backed into the parked car in Buffalo, a Hamburg police officer saw her Ford Thunderbird weaving in traffic and charged her with DWI.
The blue line, police and deputies say, usually breaks apart when the impaired off-duty officer causes an accident. Then they are on their own. Charges will be lodged, and the details will come to light.
For example, a state trooper was charged with DWI in June after a one-car accident in the Town of Boston.
Milbrandt was charged after the mishap in the drive-through.
A Lockport officer in 2010 was convicted of driving while ability impaired after a wreck in Niagara County.
"We do have cases, and we are actively prosecuting them, where police have been pulled over by other police officers. But usually in those cases, there is some kind of accident," said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, who stressed that his prosecutors do not give preferential treatment to cops.
"It's a close-knit organization, whether you're local, state or federal," said Stanley Radwan, who retired from the Buffalo Police Department in 1987. "You are all coming from the same idea, to enforce the laws. And yet when you've got a member who has violated that ... it's just difficult to have to charge that person. But that's your job. That's your job, and that's the oath you took."
Today Radwan is active in Evans Taxpayers United, and he and some other members are looking quizzically at that town police department's handling of a July accident involving an off-duty Hamburg police lieutenant.
The lieutenant, Nicholas F. Ugale, 44 at the time, apparently lost control of his sport utility vehicle on Lake Shore Road and drove it across the oncoming lane and into a privately owned cement wall, flattening about 20 feet of it around 1 a.m. on July 12. No tickets were issued.
Though the Evans Police Department has its own accident investigation team, the force turned to the Hamburg Police Department - where Ugale works - for help in the investigation.
The Evans police released details about the wreck only after The Buffalo News filed a request for information under the state's Freedom of Information Law. In the meantime, someone spray-painted a message declaring the site as a place where a police officer had been deemed "above the law." The town quickly painted over the words, written on the still-standing section of the wall.
Why did the Evans police balk at ticketing a Hamburg officer?
"A very small percentage of our accidents in the Town of Evans are followed by summonses," Police Chief Ernest P. Masullo said. "It's not because of who the person is, it's the discretion of the officer on whether they write the summons or not. This is not a unique situation. We generally in our department do not issue a lot of summonses at traffic accidents."
He said his officers assessed Ugale and found no sign he had been drinking. And he said the Hamburg police were called for two reasons: to tell them, as a courtesy, that one of their officers had been in an accident, and to solicit the use of their special device that helps surveil an accident scene, the "Total Station."
"Although the cause of the accident was speed and the failure to keep right, they just felt at their discretion that they weren't going to issue a summons. I stand by my officers," Masullo said.

Smell of alcohol

Around 2 a.m. on Jan. 16, Erie County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Harris drove into a house in Akron while off duty, taking out the laundry room and jarring the couple sleeping inside the home. With his blood-alcohol content measured at 0.15 percent, Harris was charged with driving while intoxicated. After pleading guilty, he was fined $1,000, ordered to attend a drunken driving program, drive with an interlock device and write a letter of apology to the family whose house he damaged. He's back at work.
When news of the accident circulated, Morey Ground of the Tonawanda Reservation recognized the name Daniel Harris.
On Aug. 26, 2011, Ground was driving on Crittenden Road near Akron when a car veered into his lane at an intersection and banged into his vehicle, causing only minor damage. Ground got out of his auto and confronted the other driver, Daniel Harris.
"I walked up to his car and said 'What the hell is going on?'?" Ground recalled. "He had a dazed look."
They started to argue about who was at fault, and Ground said he smelled alcohol on Harris' breath. It was a little after 6:30 a.m. when Ground called 911 to report the accident and to state that he could smell alcohol on the other driver.
"I told him I was calling the cops. And he gets on his phone right away. I told him I called 911, and he said he's got somebody coming. I didn't know it at the time, but he's a [deputy]," Ground said. "I think the sheriff's showed up first ... then the Akron cops showed up. I was just sitting in my car, and they were back there talking to him ... then the cops said that it was his fault and they were going to write up tickets and I could leave. So I left."
While Harris was ticketed with a traffic infraction, he faced no alcohol-related charges. When The News asked him about the circumstances of that incident, Harris said Sheriff's Office policy bars him from talking to reporters for public comment, and he soon hung up the phone.

'Police discretion'

"I have been on both sides ... and because of that, I have come away a better person," said Joseph H. Raczynski, a sheriff's deputy who was charged with driving while intoxicated after his car hit a tree in October 2006.
Raczynski, an accident investigator, will be giving a new class at the police academy about the ethical obligations of a police officer.
He seemed to indicate that he doesn't think an officer should let off-duty cops drive away if they appear impaired by alcohol or drugs.
"By allowing a police officer to operate a motor vehicle while he may seem impaired, we still have a duty, and we still have an obligation to rectify that situation," he said.
Rectify it how? he was asked.
"That would depend on the circumstances," Raczynski said. "That's police discretion."
The Haug case arose soon after the verdict in the trial of Dr. James Corasanti, who was cleared of charges related to the death of Alix Rice, the teenage skateboarder he hit from behind in Amherst in July 2011. Corasanti was convicted of a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated.
Corasanti's defense team worked to poke holes in the Amherst Police's reconstruction of the accident.
Jerry Colosimo said town investigators told him they are doing everything they can as they investigate the crash involving his brother.
For example, police obtained security video from businesses along Daniel Colosimo's route that morning to determine that the lights on his Suzuki motorcycle were in working order, Jerry Colosimo said, and they tested the filaments on his brake light to determine that it was on when Haug's Jeep ran into Daniel Colosimo. (Town investigators said they routinely seek security video from businesses.)
When Haug refused a Breathalyzer test, a court order was obtained to have his blood drawn. Sources familiar with the evidence said the blood-alcohol content was measured at around 0.25 percent - three times the level that triggers a DWI charge. The Sheriff's Office suspended Haug without pay.
Daniel Colosimo has hired a lawyer, Mitchell Proner of New York City, indicating that a civil lawsuit is likely. Proner said he has learned that Haug will contend he was over-served at the Blu Martini.
Haug's lawyer, Brian Melber, declined to comment on that, or on any other aspect of the case.

So fragile?

Dees, the author and retired officer from Reno, Nev., said professional courtesy flows from the law-enforcement brotherhood's resolve to protect one another at all costs.
"With that brotherhood, you deal yourself out of the game - in the minds of these guys - if you don't give a break to another cop," Dees said.
"So I'll lay down my life for you," he said, summarizing the sentiment, "but if you write me a ticket, you can go to hell."
"... If I write a cop another ticket, I don't ever get backed up by cops ever again?" he asked.
"This brotherhood to the death stuff that we have, is it really that fragile?"