Police: Drugged man injures city officer in ambush

A man profoundly impaired by drugs ambushed a city police officer — grabbing and punching the officer in the face — just after midnight when the policeman stopped to fill a tire with air.

The officer sustained minor injuries and was able to radio for help during the short fight, said Lt. Michael Strangeway in a phone interview this morning. The suspect, Joseph R. Miller, 34, of 84 Clinton Ave. Apartment 1, was arrested and taken to Guthrie Cortland Medical Center where he continues to be treated for extreme drug intoxication, said Strangeway. Miller sustained only minor injuries, such as cuts and bruises, he said.

But the fight could have cost both the officer and the attacker their lives if a weapon had been involved, said Strangeway. 

“Absolutely this situation could have gone very differently and ended very differently for both the officer and the attacker,” said Strangeway. “They’re both lucky that they both avoided more serious injury.”

The attack began at 12:20 a.m. when the veteran officer — whose name is being withheld by the department — got out of his patrol SUV to fill a low tire with air at Mavis Tire at 62 Clinton Ave, according to city police. When the policeman stepped out of his vehicle, Miller rushed to attack him from behind, ambushing the officer, said Strangeway. Miller grabbed the officer, punching him in the face “a number of times,” he said.

“Outside of Miller’s heavily drugged mental state, there was no clear motive for his attack on the city officer,” said Strangeway.

Police believe Miller was on bath salts, a synthetic drug that is now the most prevalent in the city and surrounding area, he said.

“His behavior is indicative of someone on bath salts,” said Strangeway, noting that the synthetic drug can cause “psychotic behavior.”

Bath salts, a drug that has taken over the nickname “Molly” from the previous designer drug Ecstasy, can be cheaply purchased in Binghamton and Syracuse and then resold in Cortland, he said. 

“It’s very cheap to buy in a larger city like Syracuse,” said Strangeway. “It follows the same distribution routes as our other illegal substances.”

Bath salts originates in large chemical factories in Southeast Asia, he said, and are then shipped into the country by large drug trafficking organizations.

“Certainly all these things are controlled in one way or the other by large criminal organizations,” said Strangeway.

Unlike opioids such as heroin, bath salts is a stimulant and is less often fatal to the user, said Strangeway. But that also means medications such as naloxone cannot reverse the effects of an overdose.

Different bath salts have different effects on the user, with some mimicking the effects of methamphetamine, while others mimic cocaine and others imitate Ecstasy, he said. Still others are laced with fentanyl, an opiate 100 times more powerful than morphine known to cause overdose deaths in heroin users.

No court arraignment is yet scheduled for Miller as he is still being treated for his drug high in the hospital 12 hours after he attacked the officer, said Strangeway.

Strangeway reflected that the department continuously preaches vigilance to its officers and provides them with ongoing training to be as prepared as possible for the unexpected, no matter how minor the call may seem.

But this morning’s incident shows how an attack can happen at any moment.

“You don’t even have to be on a call,” said Strangeway. “And just because he has on that uniform and that badge pinned to his chest, he’s a target and he’s going to be attacked.”

Miller was charged with felony, second-degree assault, misdemeanor resisting arrest and second-degree harassment, a violation.