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Middleport police chief honored for lengthy and noble service

John J. Swick has the distinction of having served in the Middleport Police Department for 40 years – 31 as chief. It’s the longest stretch for a Niagara County village or town police chief in recent memory and the village honored him Monday for his lengthy service.

“This is all way too much attention,” he said in his self-deprecating manner.

Swick was born and raised in Johnson Creek and is a Royalton-Hartland graduate. He was in the criminal justice program at Niagara County Community College when a part-time position opened on the Middleport force.

“My good friend, Ross Annable, who was working in Middleport part-time at the time, told me the chief was looking for someone,” he recalled. Annable is Hartland Town Supervisor and now a retired Niagara County Sheriff’s deputy.

“I applied and Chief Earl Woodworth hired me,” Swick said. “There was one full-timer at the time and six part-timers.”

Swick assumed a full-time position there in May 1982 and became chief in March 1987. He’ll be 60 in June.

“Most of my friends are retired and they make as much in retirement as I do working,” he said with a chuckle. “But I still love my job and I don’t want to be retired.”

The lure of big city life never appealed to Swick, who raised three kids with his wife, JoAnne, who served as Royalton tax collector and court clerk. She passed away two years ago.

“My church was here, the kids’ schools were here and my wife loved living here,” he said. “Once you get established and your feet planted, you’re not really looking at other things.

“We have always had great village boards,” he added. “It’s been my privilege and honor to serve the village. I’ve worked under four or five different mayors and the boards have always been cooperative. There are always struggles with the budgets, to try and improve the department, of course, because we’re not a wealthy village.”

The department has grown considerably under Swick, who is a full-time chief. There are three other full-time officers and three part-timers in this village of 1,800.

“In 2001, we contracted with the Town of Royalton and in 2003, contracted with the Town of Hartland, to have jurisdiction in those towns, too,” he said. “It’s mainly traffic enforcement and responding to emergency calls, because most times, we are the closest car.

“I think this is one of my best accomplishments in my career, because we were called out of the village all of the time but didn’t have jurisdiction in the towns before those contracts,” he said. “Of course, anything major we turn over to Niagara County Sheriff’s Office or New York State Police because they are the criminal investigators, but we work hand-in-hand.”

Another high point of his career was the dramatic 2014 rescue of a family from a burning apartment building on Telegraph Road. There was a mother, her sister, and four kids, including an infant, 2-, 4-, and 7-year-olds trapped on the second floor. Swick and Sheriff’s Deputy Shannon Rodgers were the first to arrive to see smoke billowing out of windows.

“It was 9 o’clock in the morning and our volunteer firemen were at work, so we had very little manpower at first,” he recalled. “I was sitting over at the school and Shannon happened to be in the area when the call came in and we went right over. You can never plan for anything like that.

“I kicked in the front door, but it was solid smoke inside,” he recalled. “Shannon and I ran around the back and the mother and her sister had their heads out the window yelling for help.

“She started dropping the kids out the window because the upstairs was filling with smoke, too,” he added. “The bigger kids hung down and she basically handed them to me, but I had to catch the smallest ones. It was a gabled roof and the mother and her sister then had to get on the first floor roof and we found a ladder laying against the apartment building next door and brought that over. Smoke was pouring out of the upstairs windows. The ladies had to stand against the roof with their heels in the rain gutter and shimmy over to the ladder.”

It took nearly two hours and five volunteer fire companies to control the fire. The family was treated for minor smoke inhalation.

Swick said he still runs into the kids’ father once in a while and is glad to hear the family is doing well.

“It was rewarding,” he said of the rescue. “It was pretty special.”

Swick recently took some time to shine more light on his four decades in local law enforcement.

Q: What led you into police work?

A: It was just something I had an interest in. My older brother had taken the state police exam, but ended up taking a job at Harrison Radiator instead.

Q: What are the most common calls your department receives?

A: It’s a mix. We don’t have a lot of domestic calls, but probably more than people would think. We have some simple larcenies and some animal complaints. We get traffic calls – they could be speeding cars, parking issues, loud vehicles – everything from A to Z.

Q: You have three children – did anyone follow you into law enforcement?

A: Yes, my younger son, Jeffrey, is a police officer in North Tonawanda. My middle child, John, is a principal in Old Forge in the Adirondacks and he has two sons and I have another grandchild on the way. And my daughter, Grace, is a teacher at the Royalton-Hartland Middle School and she coaches girls varsity basketball, so I like going to the games.

Q: Aside from the time you helped rescue the family from the fire, what other memories stand out?
A: I was thinking last May that I have never missed a Memorial Day parade, which is kind of neat, and I’ve worked the last 40 Halloweens, too. I missed the graduations of my three kids, but never a parade or Halloween.

Q: Is working in law enforcement tougher or easier when you’re in a small community where you know everyone?
A: Sometimes it’s a disadvantage when you know both sides. Then it might come down to who called you first (laugh). Because when people know you, they might expect you to give them preference.

But most times, it’s a huge advantage to be part of your community because when other law enforcement comes into the area, they don’t know the people or the area.

Q: What’s the best trait for this calling?

A: Definitely compassion. It seems kind of cliche, but you have to have a willingness to help people. Sometimes I see people get into careers because the pay is good, but that’s why I like dealing with part-time officers, in particular, because I know they are here because they really want to be here – it’s not for the money. It’s been my privilege to help so many young men get started in this field.

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