With a desperate need for officers and a looming Civil Service exam, Falls cops are
Looking for new recruits
(working the beat: Niagara Falls Police Officer Kevin Henderson, on patrol on the B-Platoon shift Friday night, represents what police brass here hope is the changing face of the department.)
(ON THE JOB: Niagara Falls Police Detective Patty McCune discusses an open case with fellow detectives Roger Freeman, standing, Pat Stack, center, and Bill Smith. McCune is one of just two female detectives on the Falls police force.)
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Niagara Falls Police Detective Patty McCune always knew she wanted to be a cop.
“It was my childhood dream,” McCune said. “Officers would come and visit 24th Street School and I always said I wanted to be a police officer. It didn’t even cross my mind that there were no female police officers (then).”
Falls Officer Kevin Henderson though he wanted to be a lawyer, then decided the action on the street would be more fun. The fact he would be one of just four African-American officers on the Falls force never entered his thinking about the job.
“I was raised in a colorblind world,” Henderson said. “In 14 years with the military I was one of six (African-Americans) out of 150 in my unit. I don’t look at race or gender.”
Still, Falls police brass, and even the mayor, say they believe they need more cops like McCune and Henderson on a force that, statistically speaking, doesn’t look a lot like the city it protects and serves.
“It is a challenge to increase our women and minority recruits,” said Mayor Paul Dyster at a recent police promotion ceremony, “so that we look like the community we serve.”
With retirements taking a huge toll on police manpower levels here, Civil Service lists for new officers have been virtually wiped clean. So, the city will look to replenish its pool of potential police officers with a new Civil Service test for cops sometime in May.
That means the drive to sign up recruits and to try to bring more racial, ethnic and gender diversity to the department is gearing up right now. Falls Police Lt. Angela Munn, who is leading the recruitment effort, says her task is “challenging.”
“It’s very difficult, because you have to take the civil service exam, but first you have to sign up and pay for the exam,” Munn said. “You have to have 60 hours of college credit before you’re appointed, pass background, psychological and physical exams. It’s not easy.”
Lingering concerns that the city may also soon take a hard-line stand on residency rules for officers is also a hurdle for recruiters.
On the up side, Munn says, the job brings “a good base salary, the opportunity for overtime and a good benefits package.”
Then there are what Henderson and McCune see as the positives of police work.
“You never know what’s coming next,” Henderson said with a wide smile. “That might put some people in fear, but I’m always living for what (call is) next. I look forward to coming to work because I know I’m not going to be doing the same thing day after day after day.”
That unpredictability drives McCune’s passion as well.
“I could not see myself in any other career. I love this job,” McCune said. “I love that there is no routine, there is something new every day and you meet new people every day. You make a difference in people’s lives. I go home feeling like I’ve made a difference.”
Both Henderson and McCune say issues of race and gender don’t play a role in their work world. A wife and a mother, McCune said the flexibility to her work has allowed her to have all the experiences of non-police moms and then some.
“We bid our shifts every year, so you can bid the one that fits your family life best,” she said. “My husband works days, we only needed part-time daycare. I could be home when (the children) were little. I could go to the school functions and be the room mother during the day and then I put on my detective hat at night.”
Just like the military, Henderson says he works side by side with his fellow officers and they are all just cops.
“Hey, there’s not a bit of difference in me and what I do and what any of these other guys do,” Henderson said. “I just get the job done.”
Henderson does admit that police agencies can face a tough sell as a career choice in some minority neighborhoods.
“There are cultural barriers that sometimes you can’t break down,’ he said. “They have been in place for generations and they sometimes get higher with each succeeding generation.”
Despite those barriers, Falls Police Superintendent John Chella says he’s determined to keep pushing for departmental diversity.
“I think we are trying to get the word out quicker and louder that there are opportunities (in the Falls police force),” Chella said.
Falls Fire Chief William MacKay understands the challenges Chella faces. His department faced similar diversity issues when its last firefighters’ Civil Service exam was given in 2007.
“The challenge that we had was breaking perceived barriers (about being a firefighter) and just getting people to take the test,” MacKay said. “We ran a mentoring program prior to the candidates taking the test.”
Taking a page from the fire department playbook, Falls police will conduct a series of free Civil Service exam preparation classes beginning in February.
“We’ll be equipping (recruits) to be successful in taking a police Civil Service exam,” said Falls Police Captain Les Kachurek, who heads up the department’s training programs. “And we’re going to give them information they won’t get out of a study guide.”
Munn, who like McCune, joined the Falls force at a time when there weren’t a lot of woman officers, said there is nothing to lose in taking the test. She’s a perfect example of what can happen if you do.
“I had a college degree in marketing and 17 1/2 years later, here I am,” she said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but apparently I was supposed to be a police officer.”
The same appears to be true for McCune and Henderson.
“Absolutely take the test,” McCune said. “It is one of the most rewarding, challenging, and prestigious careers you can find. I’ve never felt like I was the (woman) working (in the detective bureau). I’m a detective and that’s how people in the department view me.”
“If you’ve got what it takes, it’s a great job,” Henderson said. “It was great move for me and I don’t expect that to change.”
Contact reporter Rick Pfeiffer