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Drug abuse, shootings are priorities

LOCKPORT – Approachable was always a good way to describe retired Lockport Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert and that is not expected to change with his successor, Michael Niethe.

Niethe, 58, took over as Lockport’s top cop at the end of December.

In his previous post as administrative captain, it was necessary to walk through his small office to get to the slightly larger chief’s office. But even though the move was just a few steps away, the change is big step forward in Niethe’s career.

“The Police Board put a lot of trust in me and I’m humbled by that,” Niethe said. “For the last eight years, when a real tough decision arose, I could yell, ‘Hey, chief,” because he was only about eight feet away from me. Now I have to make the tough decisions. Chief Eggert has left some big shoes to fill.”

Niethe has been working his way up the ladder for the past 33 years.

The Lockport native grew up in the old north end and graduated from Lockport High School in 1975.

He didn’t start on the police department, but rather began working as a projectionist for a number of local movie theaters, most of which have since closed. He then started working as a correction officer in the Niagara County Jail while he studied criminal justice at Niagara County Community College. He was hired by the Lockport Police Department in 1982 and graduated from the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy in June of that year.

Niethe credited his success to the strict work ethic imparted by his academy instructors, Sgt. Gary Hacker and Capt. James Gray, noting that three other classmates went on to become police chiefs. After the retirement of Eggert, Niethe is the last of his class to remain a police officer.

He started on foot patrol when he was hired by the Lockport Police Department in 1982, but was not content to remain a beat cop and continued his education with night courses at SUNY Buffalo State, graduating in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

He continued his training throughout his career, most recently graduating in 2014 from the prestigious FBI National Academy. He was one of the longest serving and oldest students in the 215-member class.

Niethe and his wife, Jane, are the parents of a blended family of three adult daughters, two school–aged sons and a grandson.

He is a third-generation police officer, following his grandfather, who was a military policeman in the U.S. Army during World War I with the American Expeditionary Force in France and his father, who served in combat during World War II and was also a military policeman in Japan during the United States occupation.

Niethe said he has a very good staff of 45 officers, including four new officers, and will hire at least three more in 2016 in order to ultimately raise the number of officers to 48.

“It a dangerous job under dangerous conditions on a daily basis,” the new chief said. “My job will be to make sure they have the highest training possible and our training is as professional as possible and our equipment is as good as it gets.”

Did you always want to be a police officer?

I came on the job, not to be a lieutenant or chief, but to be a police officer. I was totally happy walking foot patrol, being out in the community. My aspiration was to someday be an officer in a car so I could respond to calls and enforce traffic laws. I enjoyed foot patrol downtown, but it was cold in the winter. I never dreamed at the time that I would be working someday in this office.

You’ve worked hand in hand with Chief Eggert for a long time haven’t you?

Capt. Eggert, at that time, was appointed chief of police on Dec. 28, 2007, the same day I was appointed traffic captain. My title changed to administrative captain. I had all the traffic duties, plus some new ones. When [former] Chief Neil Merritt’s secretary passed away, the office was unoccupied and I moved in.

You’ve been an officer 33 years and took this job when others are retiring. How long do you think you’d like to work as chief?

I’ve thought about retiring, but I like my job. If I didn’t like my job, I could retire, but my plan is to stay five years or more, good Lord willing.

What kind of person are you?

I’m a positive person. I try not to let the naysayers get me down. I come to work with a positive attitude every day. I also love the City of Lockport. I never had any desire to move anywhere else.

Have you seen changes in Lockport since you grew up here?

I grew up on the old north end in the Prospect Street area. Lockport is a great place to grow up. We had canals and train yards and trestles, waterfalls, parks and pools. There’s a lot to be said for Lockport.

But have things changed? Are there some things that disappoint you?

What is disappointing is the number of shootings we had last year. We had a dramatic increase in shootings and we’ve had a dramatic increase in the use of heroin. There wasn’t heroin overdoses when I was growing up. The drug of choice was alcohol. It’s scary.

How can you deal with this as chief of police?

I’m going to increase my presence at public meetings, Ward meetings. Common Council meetings. I already attend most Common Council meetings. I think that’s good for a department head. I think it’s important for the police chief to be aware of what’s going on in the community. I want to be known to the community.

What do you want people to know about you?

We are a community–orientated police department. We need the community. If we’re a good police organization, it’s because of the help from our community. We have some community outreach programs. We have the GREAT program at North Park (middle school,) which is gang resistance, it’s similar to DARE. We have two officers in North Park. Those kids get to know officers early on. That’s invaluable. I taught the DARE program for many years. To this day people know me. Having a positive impact on young people is invaluable.

Is it important for you, as police chief, to be approachable?

Absolutely. I have an open door policy here. If there is a problem developing, I want someone to come in my door and tell me about it. I think the guys here who work with me know I’m approachable and know I would fix it.

Is Lockport going in the right direction?

Lockport’s not a perfect place. We have some rough neighborhoods, but we have good people living in those neighborhoods. Our role is to protect people who have trouble helping themselves – the elderly, the crime victims, the children and the people in the City of Lockport, not just taxpayers, but those who are visiting or passing through.

It seems as if there has been an increase in methamphetamine cases in the city. Is this a problem?

We are fighting back. Meth is bad. We’ve worked very hard with the Niagara County Drug Task Force. They are actively raiding these meth labs.

As chief, are drugs, like meth and heroin, one of your top priorities?

Obviously one of our priorities is going to be going after dealers and manufacturers. That’s why our guys on the drug task force work so hard. And we want people in the community to tell us when something like a meth lab pops up.

I can tell Lockport is important to you.

Lockport has been very good to me. It’s a pretty nice place to live. I’m always happy when I come back home to Lockport.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.