Eleven new police recruits were introduced with the mayor and police chief looking on. There was an air of optimism at a department about to enter the darkest days of scandal.
It was Jan. 24, 2001.
“It’s certainly very exciting times,” then-mayor Albert P. Jurczynski said as he welcomed the new officers, with then-police chief Greg Kaczmarek looking on. “This is great news for the police department.”
But it is this recruiting class that may come to typify some of the problems the department is now facing.
Of these 11 officers who joined the force that day, four are now facing termination, each for his own unique alleged misdeeds.
They also make up a majority of the seven officers current Mayor Brian U. Stratton has targeted to be fired.
The latest and fourth member of the January 2001 class facing trouble was arrested Friday night. Officer Kyle Hunter now faces a misdemeanor count relating to an argument with his girlfriend. Police say he took her car while off duty and refused to give it back.
“I’m going to [expletive] you, like you [expletive] me,” Hunter is quoted in court papers as telling the woman.
Also members of the class of 2001 were Darren Lawrence, Dwayne Johnson and Andrew Karaskiewicz. All are facing termination, Lawrence on allegations of off-duty drunk driving; Johnson on allegations of on-duty time stealing and Karaskiewicz on allegations of using excessive force in an arrest.
This class has also had its successes. Brian Bienduga won accolades last year from a local group for his courteousness and responsiveness.
Bienduga was also just recently promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Bienduga also figures into the Hunter story. He is listed as Hunter’s arresting officer.
One of the 2001 recruits has since moved on to another department. The others have simply had a relatively quiet eight years on the force.
The number of recruits from 2001 facing termination underlines the recruitment and background check issues that police officials have cited as problems in the past.
Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett in February told the City Council that past background check systems were “terrible.” He specified the tenure of the now imprisoned Kaczmarek, who was chief from 1996 to 2002.
Many of the officers hired during Kaczmarek’s term, Bennett argued, were not qualified to do the job.
Kaczmarek is serving two years in state prison after admitting to 2008 drug crimes. During his administration, there was also a federal investigation that sent four other officers to state prison. By January 2001, one of those had already gone off to prison, leaving one of the openings that was filled that year.
The three others facing termination now came either before or after Kaczmarek. Officer John Lewis was hired in 1994 and officers Gregory Hafensteiner and Michael Brown, in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
Lewis faces termination related to a series of alcohol-related arrests in the past year. Hafensteiner faces excessive force accusations from the same incident as Karaskiewicz.
Brown, son of city police Detective Michael Brown, was hired in Stratton’s administration and is facing termination on allegations of drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident.
Stratton said he takes responsibility for Officer Brown’s hiring on his watch. But with every failure comes a chance to learn, Stratton said.
Hunter, Stratton said, has had problems before the new accusations of taking his girlfriend’s car. Hunter once lost his service weapon. It was later found in a Dumpster.
“We’re obviously learning by every misstep, what we have to do and what we have to look for,” Stratton said. “But you wouldn’t think you’d have to ask people who want to be a police officer if they think it’s OK to steal someone’s car.
“These are the things you have to double check. You measure two or three times and cut once.”
Bennett did not return a call for comment Monday. But Police Chief Mark Chaires confirmed recruitment and background checks have improved.
New recruits are now subjected to polygraph tests, hair-sample drug tests and more extensive checks into their background, Chaires said.
The polygraph tests began around 2003, under then-commissioner Daniel Boyle, Chaires recalled. He declined to detail the procedure or what topics are covered. But he said it may scare away potential applicants with questionable backgrounds.
Chaires pinpointed the hair-sample drug tests to the 2007 case of Detective Jeffrey Curtis. Curtis, now serving prison time for stealing drug evidence, was caught after a hair test showed he was a heavy drug user. He had passed previous urine tests.
Current department members are still urine-tested. Chaires again indicated officials are looking to expand that to hair testing, but can only do it through the contract with the police union.
Chaires declined to say whether any hair tests have resulted in recruits being turned away.
As for the simple background check, investigators look into a recruit’s past, checking with neighbors and even former neighbors, Chaires said.
Investigators have gone as far as Boston and Long Island checking on recruits, talking to landlords, neighbors, employers and co-workers.
One candidate, who was later hired and has worked out well, was even checked on at an apartment complex where he previously lived, Chaires said.
Chaires was quick to point out that even the best background checks can’t detect officers who go bad later.
And he couldn’t say whether any of the officers facing termination now would have specifically been turned away under harsher scrutiny.
The big issue, he said, is detecting the ones that can be detected.
“At least then the department can’t be blamed for shooting itself in the foot,” Chaires said.
“One of the most frustrating things looking back on the ones who have already been fired, is looking back and saying ‘this was an avoidable black eye.’ ”