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Lackawanna chief dropped from consideration for Central Police Services post after ‘dirty language’ incident revealed

Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr.’s name has been withdrawn from consideration for commissioner of Erie County Central Police Services after information emerged about a 1999 harassment incident involving a female police dispatcher.

Michel repeatedly used “dirty language” toward the subordinate while he was a lieutenant on the Lackawanna police force.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz last month announced Michel as his pick to take over at Central Police Services after the retirement of Commissioner John Glascott in March. But after receiving information from county legislators about the 1999 sexual harassment incident Thursday morning, Poloncarz sent a letter to the Legislature informing lawmakers that he no longer wants to appoint Michel to the post.

“My administration has no tolerance for sexist, hostile conduct towards anyone, least of all from senior officials,” said Poloncarz, a Lackawanna native who said he had no prior knowledge of the incident.

At Michel’s confirmation hearing Wednesday, legislators grilled Michel over several incidents that raised questions about his suitability to serve in a top law enforcement position.

• In 1999, Michel – then a Lackawanna police lieutenant – was required to forfeit 10 vacation days after then-Chief Dennis O’Hara found Michel had repeatedly used “foul, obscene and dirty language” toward an embarrassed female police dispatcher. He was reported by other officers who said they witnessed a pattern of the verbal abuse toward the subordinate. Aside from forfeiting his vacation time, he also gave a formal apology to the dispatcher.

• In 2014, Michel was involved in a hit-and-run incident while on duty, responding to a bank robbery. Michel – who was driving an unmarked police vehicle with emergency lights engaged – struck an SUV driven by Linda McDonald, a 20-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department. The impact is believed to have sent McDonald’s 2006 Ford Explorer into another vehicle.

• Michel was also recently embroiled in a series of contentious incidents involving a dispute with the City Council over alleged overpayments of more than $36,000 in sick and overtime pay. The Council had hired outside counsel to determine whether it could retrieve the money in sick pay and overtime compensation benefits paid to Michel from 2011 to 2013.

Michel was up for a confirmation vote by the Legislature at Thursday’s regular session. But after the 1999 incident was shared with legislators Wednesday and Thursday morning, members on both sides of the aisle agreed to delay a vote until further research and vetting could be done.

Poloncarz’s withdrawal of Michel’s name forestalled that. Poloncarz called the vetting process by the Central Police Services Board of Trustees “insufficient.”

Read more details on the 1999 incident, the response from Poloncarz and other controversies involving Michel on the Politics Now blog,