James Curtis bolted from the Falls Public Safety Building with television news cameras and reporters in hot pursuit.

The 52-year-old Falls resident, a 26-year employee of the city’s Department of Public Works, had just been bailed out on charges stemming from the posting of a racially offensive sign on Aug. 13 at the DPW garage on New Road.

“Are you sorry,” a reporter asked.

“Yes I am,” Curtis replied as he ducked into a waiting car.

Asked if he had anything else to say, Curtis said, “I’m sorry. It was meant to be a joke, but I guess it wasn’t funny.”

With that, Curtis’ wife slammed shut the car door and the vehicle pulled away.

He’ll return to City Court on Tuesday morning to be arraigned on a charge of felony second-degree aggravated harassment. The charge is ordinarily a misdemeanor but is a felony in this case because Curtis is being charged under the state’s hate crime category.

The arrest was announced at an extremely brief Friday afternoon news conference at City Hall. Falls police Superintendent John Chella said the arrest followed a week-long investigation into the incident, crediting veteran detective Frank Coney for cracking the case.,

Mayor Paul Dyster said Curtis will face more than just criminal charges.

“As part of my administration’s policy of having no tolerance for this type of behavior, in addition to the criminal charge ... the city is also commencing disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Curtis,” the mayor said.

Dyster refused to take questions from reporters “because of the now pending criminal and disciplinary proceedings.” Police officials also declined all further comment on the case.

However, the Gazette has learned that Curtis confessed to putting up the sign, which read, “Whites Only Water Fountain” and told investigators he had intended for the sign to be a joke.

City Council members who had also been called to the news conference expressed frustration with the lack of information provided by the mayor and police.

“We’ve learned to be patient,” Councilman Robert Anderson said. “So we’ll see what we get (in the future).”

Asked about Curtis’ intentions, Anderson said, “He should have known better.”

Joe Paulk, a DPW worker who said he’s known Curtis for several years and worked with him in the past, expressed shock that the racist sign was written by the veteran employee.

“I have never experienced Curtis to be a racist in any of the years I’ve known him,” Paulk said. “I’ve never seen any signs of racial intentions coming from him. This came as a total surprise.”

Paulk is a member of the Niagara Falls Six, a group of DPW workers suing the city for discrimination. Upon learning of the sign, the group sent it to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office and requested an investigation.

On Wednesday, Cuomo spokesman John Milgrim confirmed the sign had been received and the attorney general would assist in the investigation. Sources told the Gazette the sign is now at the State Police lab undergoing testing.

“I’ve watched the city handle numerous of these types of investigations before and never once have I ever seen an arrest occur,” Paulk said. “We needed to bring these matters to the surface.”

Prior to Curtis’ arrest, DPW Director David Kinney said Wednesday tensions among his employees were running high as the investigation continued.

“I’m working diligently to calm that down and try to get work going again,” Kinney said.

While all workers have been reminded that acts of racism will not be tolerated, Paulk said city leaders need to take a closer look at the Falls’ workforce and see how they can strike a better balance between the number of minority and non-minority employees.

“When minorities are outnumbered 10 to 1 in most departments, it just breeds an atmosphere of racism and that’s why we have these problems,” Paulk said.

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