Mayor Tobin: PD officer reprimanded for drawing pistol

Still photo taken from home security video depicting Lt. Michael Strangeway and Patrol Officer Kim Lawrence/ Video published on Facebook by Kristopher Michaels

 

Mayor Brian Tobin announced Friday a city police officer was reprimanded after inappropriately displaying their service weapon on Sept. 15.

No resident was impacted, according to Tobin’s press release. The release does not describe the incident or which officer was reprimanded, although it does state another officer at the scene acted professionally.

On Sept. 15, a 20-second home security video posted on Facebook by a user identified as Kristopher Michaels depicts city police Lt. Michael Strangeway pulling his pistol and pointing it at the floor for two to three seconds. Strangeway asks the resident to put away his large, barking dog before opening the door to police and expresses concern the dog will bite.

Another security video from a few seconds earlier was also posted by Michaels to Facebook, and depicts Officer Kim Lawrence pulling her electric stun gun or TASER from her utility belt before walking up the stairs to the residence. Lawrence does not appear to be holding the TASER in the video of the officers standing outside the door.

 

The video (made up of two short clips), depicted below, is likely the incident Tobin refers to:

In a Sunday email, Cortland Police Chief F. Michael Catalano noted Sept. 15 was the date of the incident the department investigated, but did not directly state if it was the incident or not.

The press release came from the Mayor‘s office,” Catalano said. “He does refer to the date of Sept 15 which is the date the video was posted to social media and the incident we investigated.”

The Cortland Police Department has never sent out a press release regarding a police officer’s discipline before and it is highly unusual for Tobin’s office to send out such a release as well.

In his release, Tobin states the disciplined officer violated “internal policy.”

Catalano declined to comment as to what policy was violated.

In an in-person, recorded interview on Sept. 16 about the incident, Chief of Police F. Michael Catalano told The Cortland Voice Owner and Publisher Tim Bennett that “The officers have to determine the best way to handle a situation when they come to it.”

Catalano pointed to the potential danger of a dog bite.

“I think we can hear on that clip that there was a dog barking and that always gives concern because you don’t know what you’re getting into,” he told Bennett. “I think they talked themselves through it pretty well. Nobody got hurt, there was no discharge of a weapon, nothing was pointed at anybody or anything, any animal or anything like that.”

The situation was diffused by talking to the residents, Catalano noted.

“There was a conversation with the people inside and that seemed to go well,” he told Bennett. “And we followed up with the residents afterwards and that went well.”

Catalano explained that officers may draw their weapons for a variety of reasons, depending on circumstances, and may do so simply to ready themselves in case they need to defend themselves.

“It may never be pointed,” Catalano told Bennett. “It may be down, pointing low, ready.”

The department was to review the video posted to social media and consider the circumstance based on what the officers knew at the time of the incident, Catalano said.

“It’s whatever the officer perceives at the time,” the police chief told Bennett. “And it’s not up to me to second guess that, but it’s up to me to look at policy to see if it was followed.”

The department does have a policy about wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, Catalano told Bennett.

“We encourage the officers to wear masks at all times when they’re dealing with the public,” Catalano said. “That is a directive that’s been put out …from me.”

Neither Strangeway or Lawrence were properly wearing a mask in the video from the top of the stairs.

Strangeway and the police union representative, Officer Jeff Fitts, declined to comment for this article.

Weapons policy

Without a citation of weapon policy from the Cortland Police Department, it is unclear which rule — if any — was violated. 

An in-depth analysis by The Cortland Voice of the Cortland Police Department’s “Use of Force” policies could not find any broken policy. The policies are published online on the City of Cortland’s website here.

The investigation into the weapons incident will result in a review of “CPD

practices and require continued accountability from its officers,” Tobin writes in the release.

Policy reviews occur routinely throughout the year as a matter of course, Catalano stated in his email.

As far as policy review, that’s an ongoing process for us for all policies,” he said.  “We always check to make sure there’s not a policy failure or changes in the law.”

 

The video

In the video, Detective Lt. Michael Strangeway and Patrol Officer Kim Lawrence are seen at the top of an enclosed staircase. Strangeway is seen with his back across an upstairs apartment door, holding a doorknob with his left hand to prevent the door from opening. Lawrence is facing the door and a large dog can be heard barking, growling and snapping on the other side. Strangeway is not wearing a COVID-19 mask and Lawrence’s is over her chin.

Both officers react with shock to the ferocity of the dog.

Lawrence curses under her breath, then shouts to the resident on the other side of the door, “Don’t open the door, please.”

“Yeah, thanks bud,” Strangeway adds.

Turning to Strangeway, Lawrence says “Wow” as the dog continues to bark aggressively at the door.

Strangeway asks the resident in the other side, “Yeah just put the dog away so I don’t have to, J—- C—-”

Then Strangeway reaches for his only weapon — a holstered pistol — removes the gun, points it at the floor and reholsters the pistol. 

Lawrence swears and points to the camera in the hallway.

“Well, I’m not trying to freaking’ get bit,” Strangeway tells Lawrence.

“No,” Lawrence replies.

In the first video, Strangeway points out the camera to Lawrence saying, “There’s a camera.”

Throughout both recordings, no weapon is discharged. The gun is pointed at the floor. No human or animal was injured or threatened.

When posting the comments, Michaels claimed the officers were “joking about killing his family dogs.” The dogs posted in his page are of two large dogs.

This is how people get executed by the police,” Michaels wrote. “This is why people are protesting.”

Strangeway and Lawrence were attempting to arrest a city man for a sex crime when they arrived Sept. 15 at the wrong, neighboring Hyatt St. apartment (as seen in the video). Instead, they found the man they were looking for lived at 11 ½ Hyatt Street.

The officers arrested the man — Caden Ross, 19 — on the charge of first-degree sexual abuse, Strangeway and Lawrence went to the second apartment and arrested Ross for sexually touching an unconcious woman while he was awaiting court proceedings on two rape charges from July 2019

‘Objectively reasonable’?

The Cortland Police Department’s entire “Use of Force” policy, that includes rules for drawing pistols, is written in plain language and posted on the department’s website.

Officers are allowed to pull their guns if there is a “reasonable belief” that injury could occur, according to the document.

“Officers may only draw and display firearms where there is a reasonable belief that there is a possibility of danger to the officer or others, or to ensure the safety of any person,” the policy states.

With both officers enclosed in a narrow stairwell, and trying to arrest a man they thought was guarded by the angered dog, they had reason to be cautious. The residence’s door could easily be opened to release the dog on the officers before they could retreat. But were their reactions “objectively reasonable” under the policy?

A plain reading of the policy requirements seems to indicate the officers’ actions were “objectively reasonable,” according to The Cortland Voice’s analysis. 

“The reasonableness of force will be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene at the time of the incident, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” the policy states. “Any evaluation of reasonableness must allow for the fact that officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force that reasonably appears necessary in a particular situation, with limited information and in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.”

Both Strangeway and Lawrence believed Ross lived at the apartment with the angered guard dog, according to Michaels’ Facebook video post. 

The “Use of Force” policy also explicitly states officers do not have to wait to be attacked or injured to use force.

“While the ultimate objective of every law enforcement encounter is to avoid or minimize injury,” the policy states, “nothing in this Policy requires an officer to retreat or be exposed to possible physical injury before applying reasonable force.”

Dog bites can cause serious injury and germs within a dog’s mouth can cause those injuries to develop bacterial infections, according to Healthline, a medical magazine.

“A deep bite can cause damage to nerves, muscles, and blood vessels under the skin. This can occur even if the wound appears to be small, like from puncture marks,” according to a doctor-reviewed September 2018 article. “A bite from a large dog may result in broken, splintered, or fractured bones, especially in the legs, feet, or hands.”

The department’s “Use of Force” policy also has an explicit section on force used against animals. It is appropriate to use deadly force if the animal is preventing an officer from performing a duty, such as an arrest, or if the animal is presenting a danger to police.

 

Unanswered questions

Catalano declined to comment Sunday when asked what the officer’s reprimand consisted of, why the press release was sent out, if disciplinary actions against other officers will be released in the future, if the investigation was ongoing over the past four weeks since Sept. 15 the incident and why the release came from the Mayor’s office instead of CPD.

The rest of your questions I cannot answer,” Catalano stated in an email, “as I am navigating how the repeal of 50a impacts police, fire and correction officer personnel files.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the repeal of the 50-a section of the New York State Civil Rights Law on June 12. The 50-a law shielded police officers from public scrutiny of disciplinary actions, except for ones that resulted in a criminal charge. The repeal does not require disciplinary actions to be sent out in press releases; it does allow citizens to request and receive records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Catalano also declined to answer if political ill-will on the part of the mayor influenced the investigation and the news release.

Strangeway was openly critical of Mayor Brian Tobin’s opposition to the Cortland Police Department’s partnership with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. During a broadcast City Common Council meeting on Oct. 1, 2019, Strangway publicly accused Tobin of lying about information gathered from other municipalities that also participated in the federal DEA program. Despite Catalano and Strangeway’s insistence that the partnership was effective in preventing major drug traffickers based in large cities such as Syracuse from peddling in Cortland, the Common Council opted to leave the partnership in a 3-4 vote.

Whether or not the investigation took resources away from drug and property crime investigations was the final question Catalano declined to answer.

The City is in the midst of a 200% increase in overdose deaths, with a death toll of 21 so far for 2020 compared to 7 for all of 2018, according to the Cortland County Coroner’s Office. Thefts have also risen 47% compared to 2019 and the County costs for autopsies has also risen from $24,500 to $73,500.