In a world where police shootings have come under fierce scrutiny, retiring Buffalo Police Lt. Mike March offers some advice for the officers he leaves behind.
“Fall back on your training, rely on yourself and what you know you’re capable of and rely on the other officers around you. If you follow those three things, you’ll come out OK,” said March, who speaks from personal experience.
He was involved in three on-duty shootings. The Erie County District Attorney’s office investigated all three and determined them to be justified.
March says that did not mean he was spared emotional fallout.
“My father had been a Buffalo police officer, and he had been a wealth of information and a source of comfort to me. He knew all about the job,” the 57-year-old March said. “I looked at my father as a mentor. I became a police officer because I wanted to be like him. It was exciting and you got to help people.”
But the younger March entered territory his father, Donald, had been spared.
The first shooting occurred in 1988 when a group of individuals was causing a disturbance across the street from March’s old precinct at Grant and West Ferry streets. As he attempted to quell the disturbance, one of the men grabbed his night stick and started hitting him. Fearing for his life, March drew his gun and shot the man, who survived the shooting.
Five years later, he and six other officers responded to a “male-with-a-gun” call on the 300 block of Leroy Avenue in the Northeast District. They encountered a gunman standing in front of a woman. Before they could take action, the man shot and killed the woman. It was not his first time.
The man had been released from prison in California, where he was convicted of fatally shooting his girlfriend.
The Buffalo officers found that out later.
“After shooting the woman in front of us, he turned the gun on us and shot, and we returned fire, striking him several times. He lived and was convicted and sent to prison,” March said.
Nearly two decades later, in 2012, a lieutenant by this time, March was summoned to the 100 block of Hamilton Street in the Northwest District by officers to supervise a scene involving a man who had attacked an ambulance crew with a kitchen knife.
“I met the officers up in a hallway outside the man’s small apartment. He came out flaring the knife at all of us. He was trying to stab one of the officers who had a shotgun and was trying to hold him off. I eventually shot him once as he came after me. Somehow, I actually shot the knife out of his hand and it blew his finger off and passed through his midsection but he recovered from his wounds,” March said.
To March’s amazement, the same man later ended up in a similar police standoff, only this time in the Town of Tonawanda.
“He re-enacted the same scenario in the Town of Tonawanda, and police there handled it and he lived,” March said.
But not all was grim for March in his 33 years on the force.
He was able to prevent bloodshed, save lives and remove criminals from the streets. In 1984, he was honored with the police commissioner’s Award of Bravery for disarming a gunman who had shot another man. In 1987, the Police Benevolent Association honored him for saving a 3-month-old baby whose father had attempted to strangle the infant.
His saddest moment occurred on Oct. 30, 2002, when Officer James Shields was killed in an on-duty car accident while investigating a robbery.
“I was his lieutenant and 30 seconds behind him when he died. He was a great friend and cop. I was honored to give the eulogy at his funeral,” March said.
Several days later, March was honored with the commissioner’s Leadership Award.
Now with retirement arriving on Saturday, March says he would do it all over again.
“When I first joined the department, I would have done it for free. I had so much fun. After a few years, the reality hits you, the death and destruction of lives and families around you. It plays a role in your own maturing,” he said. “Burnout is always in your rearview mirror.”
But what helped, he said, was advancing to lieutenant after 11 years on the streets.
“I was looking for another view, and for me it was like a new career within the same setting.”
And what is ahead for March?
He and his childhood sweetheart, the former Deborah Lasaowski, to whom he has been married 38 years, are looking forward to spending time with their seven grandchildren.