The image of the law-and-order judge in Cheektowaga has a long history.
In the 1990s, when Justices Thomas S. Kolbert and the late Ronald E. Kmiotek Sr. were on the bench, they became well-known for handing down maximum sentences for mall larcenies.
“I’m taking the hard line,” Kolbert said in 1992. “I’m sending out a message to people involved in crime. You come before me, pack your toothbrush. You’re going to jail.”
A quarter of a century later, amid calls for town court to get tough on crime and on criminal defendants, Cheektowaga Democrats this year endorsed Police Detective David M. Stevens, a 29-year police veteran, for town justice. If he is elected in November, that would mean both town jurists would be former police officers. Justice James Speyer is a former assistant police chief and 31-year law enforcement veteran who retired from the department in 2018.
Speyer, 59, and Stevens are not licensed attorneys, but New York State allows non-lawyers to preside over less-serious cases like vehicle and traffic matters, small claims, evictions, civil matters and criminal offenses.
The state does not require town and village justices to have a law degree. All that is required is the majority of the vote and a weeklong training program administered by the Office of Court Administration, Sirago said.
“My degree is the 29 years of law enforcement experience,” said Stevens, 53. “Being out on the streets, I know what Cheektowagans want – a fair and consistent judge. I will hold people accountable.”
It's not clear how unusual it would be for a community to have two former police officers on the bench. But Tanja Sirago, executive director of New York State Magistrates Association, said about 60 percent of the 1,832 town and village justices in the state outside of New York City are not attorneys. And the most common previous occupation for those jurists is in law enforcement.
“Today, nearly 200 town and village judges across New York are former law enforcement officials,” she said. “As public servants who understand the legal system and have strong connections to the community, they bring a highly valued perspective to the bench.”
Two-term incumbent Paul S. Piotrowski, 65, a former town and village prosecutor, and a private practitioner who has been the only licensed attorney on the Cheektowaga bench for more than a decade, said he was shocked to lose the key Democratic endorsement to Stevens. But he is not giving up the bench without a fight. He collects petitions daily with a small group of volunteers who go door-to-door to Cheektowaga residents throughout the town. He described the response as favorable – and marked by surprise.
With the state pushing the primaries ahead to June this year instead of September, candidates took to the streets in February to gather petitions.
“People were shocked to see that a judge would be knocking at the door, let alone in the extreme cold,” Piotrowski said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I wanted to maintain my judicial independence.”
Piotrowski, former narcotics chief for the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, worked 17 years as a prosecutor. He also worked as Cheektowaga and Depew prosecutor.
Stevens, a graduate of Slippery Rock University, joined the Cheektowaga Police Department in 1991 after starting his law enforcement career in 1990 as a correction officer at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining.
Stevens became a detective in 2006, and he joined the Youth and Family Unit in 2010, investigating domestic abuse cases, juvenile issues, missing persons and white-collar crime.
“I’m not dealing only with youth, but the family dynamic,” said Stevens. “I’m out on the streets dealing with these domestics, and there’s a lot more to it that we are missing – especially the mental health issue.
“I’m not looking to throw everyone in jail, but they need to want to help themselves,” said Stevens. “It’s a two-way street. I know how to handle people – even those who are incarcerated.”