The Town of Tonawanda police chief has temporarily shut down the department's SWAT team after two recent episodes that left one member charged with driving while intoxicated and another under investigation by the Erie County District Attorney's Office.
Chief Jerome C. Uschold III on Wednesday indefinitely suspended the team. A department spokesman said a "reconstituted" SWAT team would return sometime later this year once it can be brought up to minimum manpower standards.
The directive applies to large-scale activations of the full SWAT team, which are rare in the town, Lt. Thomas Haynes said in an email. Far more common are the deployments of small numbers of SWAT-trained members to respond to low-level emergencies, and those will continue as needed, he said.
"The chief has full confidence in our agency and officers to safeguard public safety," Haynes said.
Uschold's move came two days after he and the Tonawanda Town Board asked District Attorney John J. Flynn to look into whether Officer Howard M. Scholl III should face criminal charges for his role in a Jan. 19 accident.
It also comes six weeks after Lt. Corey J. Flatau was charged with DWI following a late December crash in Niagara County. Both Scholl and Flatau were SWAT team members, a town employee confirmed to The News.
"I feel the chief's decision was appropriate given all the circumstances he's made me aware of," Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said in an interview.
Scholl, 36, was leaving an awards party for members of the SWAT team at Sinatra's Restaurant in the Town of Tonawanda that night when his Chevrolet Suburban SUV went through a stop sign and hit a sedan at Englewood and St. Johns avenues, town officials said.
Scholl initially said his wife, Aimee, was driving the SUV before changing his story a week later and admitting he was behind the wheel. Scholl is on unpaid suspension and the town has moved to fire him.
Flatau, 37, was arrested at 12:15 a.m. Dec. 27 shortly after the car he was driving veered across the highway on Nash Road at Niagara Falls Boulevard in Wheatfield and struck a mailbox, according to the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office. Flatau was charged with DWI after he fell onto the hood of his car during a sobriety test.
The criminal charges are pending and he is on a 30-day, unpaid suspension from the department.
Haynes said he could not discuss pending discipline against any members of the department, but he did say the police chief has no issues with the conduct of SWAT team members on the night of Jan. 19.
"Regarding the SWAT dinner at Sinatra’s, the only concerns we needed to address were the actions of Officer Scholl that occurred after the dinner," Haynes said in the email.
The town Police Department formed its SWAT team more than 30 years ago. The part-time team is made up of patrol officers, detectives and staff officers who train to respond on short notice to critical incidents, Haynes said.
The typical SWAT-type call is handled by whichever tactical team members are working at the time, he said, and that will continue during the team's suspension.
The activation of the full team isn't common, but Haynes did point to two recent examples: a potential domestic violence hostage situation on Byron Avenue last year and a case from 2013 on Fries Road in which a man tried to take his girlfriend hostage, barricaded himself with a rifle and eventually died after setting his home on fire.
In the latter incident, Haynes said, the neighborhood and local schools were placed on lockdown.
Haynes did not say when Uschold would restore the full-scale SWAT team, nor did he say how many new members it would have when it does return to duty.
Police said the department has arrangements in place should Tonawanda require assistance from other agencies.
Amherst police will honor the town's long-standing mutual aid agreement with Tonawanda, Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said. But any long-term or formal commitment to take the place of Tonawanda's SWAT team would require further discussion involving the Amherst Town Board, the town attorney and the town's police union, he said.
"We'll see where we end up," Kulpa said.