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Falvo looks back on 40 years with Schenectady police

Falvo looks back on 40 years with Schenectady police

From high to lows, Schenectady native was there
Falvo looks back on 40 years with Schenectady police
Officer Christopher Palmer, right, is congratulated by Jack Falvo in Jan. 2016
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — An irritated motorist complained about his ticket at the traffic counter window. 

He hollered into his phone, paced back and forth and grew increasingly unhappy on a recent weekday morning. 

But he brightened when Assistant Chief Jack Falvo Jr. materialized and broke into a wide grin.

The pair exchanged small talk before Falvo disappeared back into the bowels of Schenectady Police Department headquarters. 

Tension relief. 

But the days of when staffers can lean on Falvo, a man known for his amenable and low-key demeanor, as a natural stress reducer are waning. 

The sun is setting on Falvo’s 40-year career with the Schenectady Police Department.

His last day is Friday. 

“I don’t even see it as a job,” Falvo said. “It was just a phenomenal career. It’s a calling.”

It’s a run that's seen highs, with the native son ascending the ranks and nabbing numerous awards for valor. 

It’s been a career of reinvention. Falvo went back to school at the age of 48, wrote his thesis on police corruption and was later tapped to overhaul the city’s troubled Building Department in the aftermath of the fatal 2015 Jay Street fire.

And there have been lows, such as the dark days when he rode out a federal corruption probe that ensnared the department and saw four colleagues sent to state prison. 

AFTER DARK

As one of six children growing up in the city’s north side, Falvo was drawn to excitement. 

By the time he was in middle school, he knew he wanted to be a cop.

“I got chased by the police a few times,” he laughed. “I didn’t get caught and that’s why I’m here.”

After graduating from Bishop Gibbons in 1974, and later SUNY College of Technology Utica, where he studied criminal justice, Falvo hit the streets as a patrolman working midnight shifts.

He started Jan. 7, 1980, and has been with the department ever since. 

The rookie cop’s first call was to break up a fight at the corner of Union Street and Broadway. 

By the time he and his partner arrived, everyone was still brawling. 

“There was a father and son that were fighting this other guy,” Falvo said. “We were trying to break it up and all three of them turned on my partner and I.”

What happened?

“They lost, we won,” Falvo said. “All three were arrested, so that was a prelude to my future.”

Falvo worked midnights for eight years, mostly in Hamilton Hill. 

He touched down when General Electric was hemorrhaging jobs.

“My first image of it was that it was dark,” he said.

The neighborhood “rocked and rolled” with homicides, shootings, stabbings and prostitution unfolding after dark. 

Back then, the department chiefs were hardcore, Falvo said, and recruits were shoved into the streets with little training. 

“We were police officers, not social workers or caseworkers,” Falvo said. “Today, we’re more of that than ever. It’s community policing, and there really wasn’t any of that back then.”

Over time, Falvo began to see things with a more nuanced eye. 

“I learned how to treat people and talk to them without being overpowered or taken advantage of,” Falvo said. “Sometimes, the criminal element will tend to try to do that — they’ll try to intimidate you. But I’ve found that if you’re fair, honest and open, yet firm, it goes a long way and really helps you out dealing with people.” 

Time and experience, he said, melted the hardened mentality that everyone was a criminal with nefarious intentions. But at the time, interactions with the public were largely confined to negative scenarios. 

“You realize there is a lot of good people,” he said. “You just didn’t deal with them or hear from them. There’s a lot of people out there who support the police. And back then, you didn’t really think that way.”

After eight years navigating the dark underworld, Falvo’s young family was growing. He would come home from work exhausted and fall asleep. His kids would wake him up by tugging on his eyelids. 

Working afternoon shifts changed his outlook and saw him rubbing shoulders with a more dynamic set of characters than simply criminals. 

But there was always darkness. 

Among the particularly memorable homicides he investigated as a detective included the 1998 slaying of two elderly widows who were beaten to death in their Mumford Street home. 

And in 2000, two teenagers lured an Afghan refugee working as a pizza delivery driver into a vacant apartment and bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat. Their take was $15. 

The brutality of the crime bothered Falvo. 

So did the location. He grew up across the street on Van Vranken Avenue, and evidence was retrieved from his old backyard. His parents still lived there at the time. 

But almost as jarring was the apathy of the suspect’s mother when cops banged on her Park Place door to bring in her son. 

She appeared nonplussed when he was led away in handcuffs. 

“She never got off the computer,” Falvo said. 

The perceived erosion of discipline and structure over time bothers all cops, he said. 

“It’s something that I will always remember,” he said. “It was like she didn’t care about her own child. It was amazing.”

During his tenure, Falvo racked up assignments, as well as qualifications, from receiving FBI certification training for hostage and crisis situations to teaching firearms classes. 

More recently, Falvo was tapped to oversee the city Buildings Department following the fatal 2015 Jay Street fire.

A key shift was bringing a sense of police discipline to the troubled department, whose inaction authorities said directly contributed to the deaths of four people. 

Falvo improved policies and procedures to bring about what he characterized as a cultural shift, boosting staff and training, and outfitting workers in uniform and teaching them how to talk to people. 

“We changed that culture,” he said. 

'Darkest time'

Falvo rose through the ranks during a turbulent time in the department’s history.

Internal corruption came to a head in the late 1990s when the FBI launched a probe to clean up rogue elements of the force.

An investigation revealed a clique of officers had been conducting illegal searches, stealing crack cocaine from suspects and then using it to entice information from informants. 

Four officers were convicted and served prison time. The corruption case was also followed by the high-profile suicide of an officer.

Falvo declined to discuss that period in detail. 

“It was the darkest time of my career,” Falvo said. “You have that connection with police officers. We were all friends. It was a brotherhood and sisterhood. To me, it was violated.” 

Falvo went through the flames with assistant chiefs Michael Seber and William Grasso. 

“No one wants to investigate their own,” Falvo said, “but there’s a bonding that comes out of that, because it did feel sometimes like it was the three of us against the world.”

Other arrests followed as the department purged itself of bad elements, events that inspired the 2012 movie “The Place Beyond the Pines.” 

Falvo was philosophical and contemplative during an hour-long interview, circling back repeatedly to improved policies and procedures. 

The outgoing chief didn’t explicitly pin corruption to a lack of training, but acknowledged extensive training for new recruits is a relatively new concept for the department. 

“My first 10 years on the Police Department, we did very little training,” he said. “And that was the shortcoming.”

Still, cops aren’t lawyers and mistakes happen, he said. And officers are forced to make split-second decisions when courts have months to dissect what and how it went wrong. 

Falvo has also battled his own scandal. 
 
He was one of the "Binghamton Five," a group of officers who were sued in a 1992 civil case for allegedly dragging a suspect out of an apartment and beating him under the mistaken belief that he was wanted for a double killing in Florida. 

John C. Rodick was actually wanted for a probation violation after leaving the scene of an accident. He sued and eventually won in court. The city was forced to pay $1.75 million, the biggest payout in a police misconduct trial in the city’s history. 

Two decades ago, Falvo had become somewhat of a poster child for what critics contended was wrong with the Police Department — that a patrolman with a stained record could still get promoted and be a contender for the chief's job.

Falvo continues to believe Rodick, who died in 2011, and his girlfriend, Teresa Zuloo, were dishonest, and the event was an anomaly.

“God knows the truth and I’m good with it,” he said. 

“It was a sad situation and I deeply feel bad that it cost the city a lot of money, and that always bothered me,” Falvo said. “And it makes you a better person and it makes you work harder at it, especially when you know you were right and you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Falvo called the lessons learned from that fateful night a “guiding force” in 2002, a period when he served as interim police chief for nine months after then-Chief Gregory Kaczmarek was demoted (Kaczmarek was later sentenced to two years in state prison for his role in a local drug ring).

That was also the year Falvo resumed classes at Marist College, where he ultimately received a master's in public administration. 

Afterward, Falvo drew from his personal experience while teaching ethics classes to new recruits.

Hardworking officers with good intentions will inevitably be challenged on their techniques, he said. And civil lawsuits can appeal to people with ulterior motives, particularly during challenging cases that require tough calls.

“They prefer the easy way out and sometimes they think their rights were violated, or police were unjust,” he said. “They’re going to challenge you and that’s typical, and that’s one of the lessons that I teach the new recruits: What happened to me and four other police officers — it doesn’t always happen that way.”

Falvo wrote his graduate thesis on police corruption, receiving an A-.

“My thoughts were that our hiring practices and procedures were coming up short,” he said.

At the time, conventional wisdom was that bad apples don’t join police departments to go rogue, but rather learn it while on the job, he said. But emerging research indicates that hiring practices affect outcomes, said Falvo, who said he found the new data validating. 

BOND OF BROTHERHOOD

Tightened discipline and new policies and procedures emerged from the FBI probe and ultimately helped cast out the department’s negative elements.

Many of those emerged at the same time Falvo and Seber were promoted to assistant chiefs.

The department was among the first to use polygraph tests as part of the interview process for recruits, a practice joined by extensive psychological evaluations and criminal background checks. 

“We’re one of the toughest departments to join today,” Falvo said. “The scrutiny we put these candidates under is a lot bigger spotlight than when we got hired.”

Falvo served under five mayors and nine police chiefs. Each had different leadership styles.

“But as time went on, the chiefs, including myself, mellowed,” Falvo said. "And I’ve been able to make it 40 years because I’m willing to accept change.” 

Among one of Falvo’s longest and most important relationships is that with Seber, who joined the force in 1989. While their families were friends, the pair didn’t know each other growing up. They ultimately came up the ranks together, weathering the same storms and sharing in the same successes.

In 1995, the then-sergeants climbed on board to lead the department’s re-established SWAT team. 

“Back then, we would do one to two raids a week, mostly drug investigations, so you’re talking upwards of 75 to 100 raids a year,” Seber said. 

For the past 19 years, the pair have served together as assistant chiefs. 

“We’ve established a bond that very few police officers get to do for as long as we have done it for,” Seber said. 

One result of their rapport is “The Jack & Mike Show," a back-and-forth the pair say brings a degree of levity to meetings. 

“He’s the most ethical, caring police officer I’ve ever worked with,” Seber said.

“You got a Kleenex?” Falvo cracked. 

The three assistant chiefs, rounded out by Patrick Laguire, have nearly 100 years of experience. 

Letting go of that institutional knowledge will be a challenge, said city Police Chief Eric Clifford, who was hired during Falvo’s tenure as interim chief.

Clifford worked under Falvo’s Field Services Bureau until 2011, then shifted to Laguire’s Investigative Services Bureau.

“His instructional knowledge of this agency, along with the other assistant chiefs, has made my transition from lieutenant to chief seamless,” Clifford said.

That ranges from the dynamics of working with other agencies to ways to improve internal morale and discipline.

“We don’t want to repeat history, but rather learn from it, and having somebody who was here for a lot of what we went through was super-important,” Clifford said. “We’re going to miss his presence, his humor — just the close network we have, especially as chiefs. Your circle gets a lot smaller, and he’s one of the people in the circle.”

Falvo’s walkout ceremony is Feb. 7. 

He plans on sticking around. While golf, travel and good friends are on the horizon, so is getting to know his newborn granddaughter, Arianna Rose. 

Falvo also wants to spend more time with his foundation, Jack’s Place, named for his late son who died in a jet-skiing accident at the age of 21. 

The transformation in the city has been unbelievable, he said. 

“I’ve seen it bad, I’ve seen it good. And now it’s just spectacular, I think.”

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