Police board debates retaining Preisch, hiring new chief

Steven Preisch

Police board members and other city leaders are debating whether to move ahead on hiring a new chief or try to once more extend the tenure of interim Police Chief Steven Preisch.

Last month, the police board was preparing to interview the three Lockport police officers who scored the highest on a promotional civil service exam — Detective Capt. Anthony Palumbo, Detective Lt. Todd Chenez and Patrol Capt. Douglas Haak Jr., who secured the No. 3 spot after another candidate withdrew. State civil service law requires the city to hire one of the three top test-scorers and to consider candidates within the department before considering those who took an open competitive exam.

But this past week, Mayor Michelle Roman said many Lockport Police Department employees have asked her to consider trying to retain Preisch, who has been the interim chief since the retirement of Mike Niethe in June 2018.

Roman said she would like to retain Preisch until the New York Attorney General's office concludes its report into the death of city resident Troy Hodge, 39, after a mid June encounter with police. She said the attorney general's office told her it would release its report about six months after completing its investigation, and that the report may not come out for more than seven months. 

Other sources say it's unclear how long the attorney general's investigation might last, and reports on other fatal police encounters have come out more than a year after the incidents. The attorney general's office will not say when it might conclude its investigation or release its report on Hodge's death.

"I kind of want to keep our status quo until that report comes out," Roman said.

Roman also said she would like to retain Preisch until the department finishes its accreditation process. LPD voluntarily withdrew from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services’ accreditation program in February 2018, after determining it could not meet the program's standards.

But accreditation is a lengthy, painstaking process that involves reviewing and updating — and reviewing any changes to — about 150 police department policies. Preisch estimated the process could take one to one-and-a-half years, though he said he is hoping to speed the process by assigning one officer to work on accreditation full-time.

That timeline poses two challenges for the city. First, Preisch has not committed to staying on as the city's top cop for possibly another 18 months.

Preisch said he would like to finish ongoing projects like accreditation and resolving issues related to LPD's outdated dispatch center, though he is not convinced the city needs him for these matters. 

“If there was a true need for me remaining, I would be open to it," Preisch said. "I don’t know if there’s a true need for me to remain at this juncture.”

Preisch said he also has to consider the officers who are vying for the chief's post, as well as personal considerations like his family and another potential job opportunity.

“Part of me truly wants to stay, and part of me thinks it’s time to let the next person step up and take that role," he said.

The second hurdle: state civil service law bars retirees from collecting a pension if they earn more than $30,000 annually. The state civil service commission granted Preisch, a retired Niagara County Sheriff's chief deputy, a waiver on the income limit in October. That waiver will expire Sept. 30, and the commission has indicated it won't extend the waiver for another year, according to city Civil Service Director Mary Pat Holtz.

However, 5th Ward Alderman Rick Abbott said commission members told him they may extend Preisch's waiver for a transition period that would last through the end of the year. Then the city could retain Preisch for the first few months of 2020, until sometime before his monthly payments exceed $30,000.

“In that timeframe, you could get another 10 months," Abbott said.

But not all police board members agreed the city should, if it can, retain Preisch for so long.

“Why can’t we start working on building our accreditation credentials with the people who’ve been here?" said board member Timothy Walsh. "Why wait seven months for that?”

"If we can’t move forward on hiring a chief over a year-and-a-half period, what does that say to the city?" Walsh added later in the discussion. “If we are in a position of having to hire one of these three candidates, why aren’t we looking to say, 'Let’s get this leadership started and move forward.'”

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