State Police went it alone
Local, federal law enforcement note that troopers only recently began accepting offers of help in hunt for fugitive Ralph Phillips
By DAN HERBECK and GENE WARNER
News Staff Reporters
"If one of my deputies was shot, I would want a guy wearing our star to arrest the shooter."
Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein
In the week since two troopers were shot in a Chautauqua County ambush, State Police have emphasized how closely they're working with other police agencies in the manhunt for Ralph "Bucky" Phillips.
But according to numerous police officials, State Police have frequently declined help from other agencies during the five-month search for Phillips. That was especially true before the shooting of two state troopers last week.
While troopers were brought in from other parts of the state to hunt for Phillips, state commanders failed to use local officers more familiar with the forests, hunting areas and rural communities where Phillips melted into the landscape.
In addition, one of the area's most sophisticated helicopters and its highly respected pilot have sat on the ground most of the time during these searches, despite offers of assistance.
"It's almost criminal that they weren't making use of him," said one longtime police source.
At times, authorities said, State Police have told agencies such as the FBI and the Erie County Sheriff's Department that their help was not needed, even after the first trooper was shot and wounded June 10.
"It's been a very large investigation that I think should have involved a lot more local agencies," Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein said this week. "There's a lot of local talent and resources out there that have not been used.
"I think there is a certain amount of pride involved, and it's understandable. If one of my deputies was shot, I would want a guy wearing our star to arrest the shooter. At the same time, in a situation like this, you have to take help everywhere you can get it. There are public safety issues here."
State Police officials replied that they have used the help of other police agencies whenever it has been needed.
From the beginning of the investigation, Trooper Rebecca Gibbons said, the State Police have had offers of assistance from federal, state, county and local police agencies. Those included specialized details such as SWAT teams and police helicopters.
"When we have needed their special resources, we have used that assistance and worked with them," she added. "But we don't want to have to tie up other agencies and dry up their resources unless it's absolutely necessary."
According to Beilein and other police officials, State Police have become somewhat more willing to accept help since the Aug. 31 shootings that took the life of Trooper Joseph A. Longobardo and critically wounded Trooper Donald H. Baker Jr.
But even now, some police officials grumble that the State Police remain reluctant to return phone calls, share information or accept help from others.
Among the examples cited:
Before the Longobardo and Baker shootings, State Police repeatedly declined FBI offers of technical help, manpower and high-technology equipment.
The FBI has state-of-the-art search and surveillance equipment that few agencies in the world have access to. Offers of weaponry expertise from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives also were ignored until recently.
Before last week's shootings, State Police turned down repeated offers of the Erie County Sheriff's Department helicopter.
The helicopter is equipped with state-of-the-art tracking and surveillance equipment, and its pilot, Capt. Kevin Caffery, has won national awards for rescue and arrest missions all over Western New York.
State Police have made little use of local police agencies staffed with veterans who know the terrain and the people in the counties where Phillips has disappeared.
Instead, troopers from as far away as Albany have had to negotiate the rugged terrain of the northern Chautauqua County backwoods. Both Longobardo and Baker were sent from Saratoga County.
Only recently have the State Police accepted help from elite units like the Buffalo Police Special Weapons and Tactics team.
"There's a lot of professional rivalry and turf battles between police agencies, but when an officer gets shot, all that should go out the window," said a recent retiree from a local SWAT team. "I have a lot of friends in the State Police, and I worry about them every day. I wonder, would they have caught Bucky weeks ago if they were accepting help from people like Kevin Caffery?"
Top law-enforcement officials throughout Western New York either chose their words carefully or were reluctant to talk at all about another police agency that they deal with frequently.
"Nobody wants to look like they're putting down the State Police when they're going through such a tragic situation," said one police source.
Several officials complained that Chautauqua County sheriff's deputies, armed with an intimate knowledge of their own turf, have been largely shut out of the hunt.
Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace downplayed those reports, saying his department is working closely with the State Police, exchanging information with them.
"I am not upset with what's going on," he added.
Friction between police agencies in Western New York is nothing new, but numerous sources said sheriffs in several counties have been upset by the reluctance of State Police to accept assistance - at least until the double shooting.
"Other departments, with their SWAT teams and helicopters, have made their offers," one local police commander said. "Until last week, the State Police felt they could do it with their own people. But now they've been accepting help."
Officials said a better spirit of cooperation seems to have emerged because of the urgency to capture Phillips after the Aug. 31 ambush.
"Right now, the cooperation is at its highest level since this thing started," Erie County Undersheriff Richard T. Donovan said. "Since the events of [Aug. 31], all the agencies have been cooperating really well."
State Police officials have said about 280 troopers per day are part of the Phillips manhunt.
"This is what the State Police do," Donovan said. "They have the resources. When something [big] happens, they can flood the area with troopers."
"And then their guys were shot," Donovan said. "So it became personal for them."
Special Agent Paul M. Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo FBI office, was asked why the FBI has had so little involvement in the manhunt.
"The FBI has always supported the State Police when asked for help," he replied. "The State Police is the primary agency in this case, and we'd refer any operational questions to them."
Although FBI officials stood in solidarity with State Police late Thursday while announcing that Phillips has been added to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted fugitives list, sources said there has been acrimony between the two agencies.
Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, who admires and enjoys working with the State Police, understands why they would want to control their own investigation.
"That's how everybody operates, whether it's Buffalo, the sheriff's department or the State Police," Clark said. "As long as you feel you have enough resources in-house to do the job, you don't want anyone's help. . . . That's an instinctive reaction from all of us, myself included.
"But when you realize your resources aren't enough, you have to put your own feelings aside and seek the help."
Several police officials questioned what they called the State Police's heavy-handed practices, especially in the early stages of the Phillips manhunt. It's one of the main criticisms voiced by some residents up and down Route 60 in northern Chautauqua County.
"They've used military tactics on a civilian population," one local detective commander said. "It doesn't work in Iraq, and it doesn't work in the Southern Tier."
Several high-ranking officials cited conflicts with the sometimes-combative Major Michael T. Manning, who has been the point man for the State Police.
But those sources also say their relationship with the State Police and Manning has improved recently, especially after State Police Supt. Wayne E. Bennett took a more active role following the double shooting last week.