In the end, despite the white noise surrounding the firing of a Tonawanda police officer, Michael Lewandowski’s four suspensions told the tale: This is not a man who should have been carrying a gun.
What is more, town residents would not have known about the dismissed officer’s disciplinary history without the new state law that gives the public access to what should always have been public information.
Town officials on Monday saw through the smoke that Lewandowski and his lawyer blew at them:
• “You have only received half of the story.”
• The Board would have “reacted differently” if only they had seen video of an encounter that produced a suspension.
•“Many facts … which may have been concealed, misrepresented or falsely stated to further a specific narrative.”
But it wasn’t just a suspension. It was four suspensions, some of which were based on video evidence. It was, as Police Capt. David R. Price observed, a “written record of repeated infractions and poor evaluations” for the officer, who had received nine letters of counsel and four more serious reports of violation since 2011.
Men and women who are authorized to carry weapons and to deprive citizens of their liberty need to be worthy of the badge they wear. Lewandowski failed that test, not just once, but over and over.
Like most people, his professional performance was more than the sum of his defects. In some matters, he shone. A Marine combat veteran, Lewandowski received several department and community awards. He once chased and arrested a domestic violence suspect who was armed with a handgun. For that, he was named the American Legion’s law enforcement officer of the year for both Erie County and New York State.
But that was in 2019. The law that allowed New Yorkers access to police disciplinary records was passed in 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. With that, New York joined other states, including Florida, that routinely make those records public, allowing taxpayers an insight to the actions of officers who work in their name and at their expense.
That change in law was not only a sensible response to Floyd’s death, but an essential one. With it, police departments and municipalities can more readily remove unfit officers, perform better and more easily maintain public support.
That, perhaps, answers the frustration of Lewandowski’s wife, Lori, who said she can’t believe that, in just two years, her husband went from “officer of the year” to “incompetent.” Today, dirty secrets are harder to keep.
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