Niagara Gazette

December 30, 2012

After more than 40 years as Falls cop, John Chella steps down

After more than 40 years as Falls cop, John Chella steps down

by Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In an office filled with half-packed boxes, Falls Police Superintendent John Chella rummages around, searching for a small cherry wood display case.

It’s one of his most prized possessions and he wants to show it to a reporter. He says he treasures it so much that it will be buried with him.

The case contains seven badges, one for each rank that Chella has held in his 42-year law enforcement career in the Falls. From cadet to superintendent, he has served in every position possible. 

He’s the only Falls officer ever to achieve that feat.

“When I was young, I lived next door to a Buffalo police officer,” Chella recalled. “I knew by my sophomore year at (Bishop) Timon (High School in South Buffalo) that I wanted to be a police officer.”

Three years later, Chella joined the Falls Police Department as a cadet and, except for a one-year layoff in the mid-1970s, he’s never looked back. From cadet, Chella moved to a position as a patrol officer, serving in what was then called the Street Crimes Unit.

He moved up through the ranks as a detective and a lieutenant, serving in the Confidential Division which later became the narcotics squad. When longtime Falls police commander Ernest Palmer became the department’s superintendent, he tapped Chella to be his deputy.

He was then named superintendent in the early days of the administration of Mayor Vince Anello. He remained in that post when Mayor Paul Dyster was elected to succeed Anello.

“It wasn’t planned,” Chella said of his rise through the ranks. “You take the promotional exams because you always try to advance. But I’ve been very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.”

Luck may have played a role, but the only longer serving commander in the department, Captain Morris Shamrock, said it was clear that Chella was destined to lead the force.

“(Chella) had all the qualities that you’d want to be a chief,” Shamrock said. “How he’d deal with the public, how he acted on their concerns, you could tell he was the right man for the job.”

Administrative Capt. John DeMarco has spent almost a decade in the office next to Chella. He says he enjoyed that time with “the chief.”

“His intensity level was always at max,” DeMarco said with a chuckle. “You always knew where you stood with him and all he ever asked you to do was show up and do your job.”

Chella said the job has changed dramatically during his career. 

“The disrespect for authority, the propensity for violence,” he said it citing what he called disturbing trends. “It’s a scary scenario for police officers now, Twenty years ago, in narcotics when we did a search warrant, if you found a gun once or twice a year it was remarkable. Now, if (narcotics detectives) don’t get (a gun) on every search warrant, they’re disappointed. It’s much tougher for a cop today, much tougher.”

Traffic Capt. Salvatore Pino spent years working as a narcotics detective with Chella. He says the superintendent was a cut above the rest.

“He was the smartest detective we had,” Pino recalled. “He knew everybody and everything there was to know about narcotics.”

As he leaves his post. Chella admits that a reverse in the downward trend of crime in the city, during most of his tenure,

is bothersome.

“This has been a difficult year (for crime statistics),” he said. “I’m sorry I’m leaving on that note.”

Chella also said the slaying of 5-year-old-child, the shooting of a 3-year-old and the dismemberment murder of a woman this year have taken a toll on him.

“It’s just the sensational stuff we’ve faced this year,” he said. “This was probably my toughest year as chief.”

Looking back on his time as the city’s top cop, Chella said he’s pleased that he had support from successive mayors and multiple city councils to maintain police manpower. More than half the force has turned over during his tenure and Chella said he believes the influx of young officers is “good for the department.”

His proudest accomplishment as superintendent was the planning, construction and move from the old police headquarters on Hyde Park Boulevard into a new state-of-the-art facility on Main Street.

“We needed a new building and I’m proud of what I contributed to getting that done,” Chella said. “The men and women who are still going to be here, they deserve this.”

Chella also pioneered the use of intelligence and data-driven policing to the Falls. He was an early adopter of the CrimeStat approach which is now used by police departments across the United States.

“He’s done more for this department than any other chief in my career,” Shamrock said. “I’ve been here 43 years and I’ve never spoken about a chief before. But I am now. He had a vision for this department and he brought it to fruition.”

DeMarco echoed that assessment. The captain said Chella has set the bar for future superintendents “very high.”

“There’s never been a better chief,” DeMarco said. “He’s done so much for this department. he was dedicated to the job more than people realize.”

Still, Chella said there were things he wished he’d done differently. Top of the list, besides the higher crime rate in 2012, was the hiring of troubled Officer Ryan Warme.

The son of a highly decorated police captain, Warme is currently serving an almost 14 year prison term for his guilty plea to federal drug, guns and civil rights sex crimes charges.

“(Warme’s father) and I were friends from college, we were close,” Chella said. “The hit that did to his dad’s reputation, that was hard to overcome.”

Chella said he knows he’ll miss his fellow officers and others he worked with in the department. He also said “miss interacting with the citizens here.”

Yet as he was preparing to leave police headquarters on Friday, accompanied by an honor guard and the department’s bagpiper, Chella recalled something his wife had told him.

“She always says, ‘He who knows when enough is enough, will always have enough,’ ” he said. “I’m satisfied with 42 years. It’s enough.”