POTSDAM- Police Chief Kevin A. Bates said he thought his department was following protocol when it internally investigated a sergeant involved in a hit-and-run property damage accident.
Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis is calling for an independent investigation of the department after learning Sgt. Michael Ames failed for nearly 18 months to report an accident he caused. Mr. Yurgartis said he received a complaint Friday from Potsdam resident Gerald Jenks Jr. about an accident on Halloween night 2010.
Mr. Ames, who was off duty that night, was leaving a party he had attended at Mr. Jenkss home when he backed into another car and drove away without reporting it, Mr. Yurgartis said. Mr. Ames confessed to the accident in a police department report he filed earlier this spring.
Mr. Yurgartis said Friday was the first time he heard about the incident. He felt the department handled the incident inappropriately and that he and Administrator David Fenton should have been notified about the internal investigation when it first surfaced.
But Mr. Bates said he thought an internal investigation was appropriate.
We thought we were doing the right thing, he said.
Mr. Bates said Lieutenant Mark Murray unofficially learned about the accident in a March 19 Facebook posting. He was not sure who posted the information Mr. Murray saw on Facebook.
Lieutenant Murray told me this information, and we immediately began the investigation, Mr. Bates said. During the investigation, Sgt. Ames admitted fault for the accident and admitted leaving the scene of the accident.
The statute of limitations for leaving the scene of an accident is one year, Mr. Bates said, so Mr. Ames was not charged with anything.
Mr. Bates said Mr. Ames was internally disciplined, but declined comment on the actions that were taken against the veteran police officer. The victim whose car he struck has since received insurance compensation for the damages, Mr. Bates said. In his complaint to Mr. Yurgartis, Mr. Jenks also alleged Sgt. Ames was intoxicated the night he struck the vehicle. Proving such an allegation would be difficult a year and a half later, Mr. Bates said.
At this point, were going to be unable to prove if he was intoxicated or not, he said.
The internal investigation took place during a period of transition for the police department. Mr. Bates, formerly a sergeant himself, was beginning to take over for retiring chief Edward F. Tischler, who left March 31. Mr. Bates said he completed some of the internal investigation because Mr. Tischler did not have enough time to finish it before he left.
Two other village board members agreed with Mr. Yurgartis call for an independent investigation.
Its something we have to do, Trustee Reinhold Tischler said. Its fair to the public to know. Its part of being an open government.
Mr. Tischler, the villages former mayor and brother of the recently retired police chief, said he wondered the 2010 accidents facts coming to light were related to Mr. Jenks DWI arrest by the village police in February on a night Mr. Ames was on duty.
Is this a I dont get mad, I get even situation? Mr. Tischler asked. Why did it take 18 months for this to come out?
Mr. Jenks, who was formerly friends with Mr. Ames but had since had a falling out, previously said his arrest was not related to complaining about Mr. Ames actions.
Trustee Steven J. Warr said police officers must hold themselves to a higher standard when they take the job.
If its true, its an error in judgment that needs to be addressed, Mr. Warr said. You cant be guilty of breaking the same laws youre supposed to be defending.
An external investigation could help restore the publics trust in the department, Mr. Warr said.
Weve got to figure out how to move forward, he said.
Mr. Warr said the timing of the controversy was unfortunate. The village board will hold a special meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday to determine whether to fill the vacancy created when Mr. Tischler retired and Mr. Bates took his place.
Its hard to keep the focus on the task at hand, Mr. Warr said.
Trustees Eleanor Hopke and Ruth Garner could not be reached for comment Monday. Mr. Ames deferred all comment to Mr. Bates when reached at the police station Saturday night.