Police Chief Mark Chaires wanted to be clear. The two members of his police force weren’t about to be honored because they were shot. Although that’s as good a reason as any to give an officer a medal.
“What distinguished them on that night was how they performed after being struck by shotgun fire,” he said.
Dressed in full uniform and standing at attention inside the GE Theatre at Proctors, Detective Jeremy Pace and Sgt. Thomas Kelly simply looked forward, not a hint of sentiment in their expressions.
They were about to be awarded a Chief’s Special Citation, which went to only three of the Schenectady police force’s 145 members on Tuesday night during the Valor Day awards ceremony — the one night a year members are ceremonially commended for their service.
Pace and Kelly are members of the Special Operations Squad. What they accomplished after being hit by a shotgun blast brought the crowd of about 200 friends and family to proud applause.
They didn’t stop or hesitate. They just continued into a house, further into harm’s way, was how Chaires described the incident. They arrested the suspect who had fired at them. They then safely evacuated the house of its other occupants: innocent civilians. Finally, they made sure it was safe for evidence collection.
“It should be noted they had to be ordered to break off from the operation so they could be medically evaluated by their supervisors,” said Chaires, from a podium.
“They put team, innocent bystanders and mission first after being struck by fire,” he said. “This is the epitome of courageousness, professionalism and selflessness. Job well done.”
It was a sign-off each person presenting an award Tuesday night gave — a simple “job well done,” to be followed by audience applause.
Patrolman Joseph Zelezniak’s narrative was a little different. And a lot more vague.
As a member of the Capital District Safe Streets Task Force, he helped target and identify criminal enterprise groups responsible for drug trafficking, violent crimes and violent street gangs. Much of the cases he has worked for the task force since 2009 have yet to be adjudicated, and for reasons of operational security can’t be fully disclosed.
Zelezniak stood solo and at attention.
He was called a “highly effective member” of the task force during two major federal investigations: Operation Block Crusher, which focused on the Four Block gang, and Operation Street Cleaner, which focused on the Uptown/Gunners gang.
“Due to his wealth of knowledge gained through years of hard work in Schenectady’s crime-ravaged neighborhoods, he was uniquely suited to provide task force members with actionable intelligence,” Chaires told the audience.
His work ultimately helped lead to the indictment of more than 70 cases on federal racketeering charges.
The description was enough for a room full of fellow officers and family members to erupt in applause.
The ceremony was a small token of appreciation that the city of Schenectady could give to its police force, said Mayor Gary McCarthy, reminding the officers he was thankful to have them working for the city.
They’re put in complex situations and asked to solve challenging problems quickly, he said.
Many other acts of valor were commended Tuesday night. The Citation for Bravery was a big one, awarded to 14 members of the force for four occasions that all involved “an act of personal bravery, characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude, endurance and self-sacrifice beyond the call of duty.”
When six officers arrived to the area of State Street and Snowden Avenue for a report of a man trying to carjack people at knifepoint, they ran right into the man who pulled out a large knife from his waistband. After being ordered to drop the weapon, he instead walked down the street toward civilians waiting for a bus.
Patrol officers Kevin Maloney, Jeffery Remillard, Sean Clifford and Marisela Fragoso and Detective Edward Ritz intentionally put themselves in harm’s way between the civilians and suspect, who made an aggressive move toward Ritz. Ritz then fatally shot him.
Also awarded were Patrolman Brian Whipple and Lt. Todd Stickney, who entered a burning building in search of children trapped inside. They were later treated for smoke inhalation.
Patrolman Bret Ferris was inside the Daily Gazette when he performed his act of bravery. Elvis Norwood had entered the lobby wielding a knife and wandered the hallways before police were called to the scene. In what was later determined to be a suicide-by-cop attempt, Norwood came at the officers and Ferris fired four rounds, striking Norwood three times.
A group of nine on the Special Operations Squad were awarded Citations for Bravery, as well.
Recalling when he first came to Schenectady, a “fast-paced” city where a lot of activity occurs, Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett’s closing remarks rang nostalgic and proud.
“If you hit X number of home runs in this country you get [recognized],” he said “Police officers do wonderful, heroic and courageous things every day but the only time anyone tells them is in this setting. And I’ve learned that in the last 44 years, that is really sad. But we’re here tonight to tell you ‘nice job, folks.’ We thank you for all the things you do for everybody here.”