Q&A with Chris Bourke: Sheriff candidate says he has helped transform department since the early days of his career

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 June 2019 at 5:47 pm

Photos by Tom Rivers: Chris Bourke, undersheriff of the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office, waves during the Albion Strawberry Festival parade on June 8. He is joined by Chief Deputy Michael Mele, who will serve as undersheriff if Bourke is elected as sheriff.

Chris Bourke, a Carlton resident, has been the undersheriff for the past three-plus years. He has worked with the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office for 35 years, starting his career as a correction officer and then was a deputy sheriff before working 18 years as a lieutenant. He was supervisor of the Marine Patrol, and also was a K9 officer for 20 years.

Bourke, 57, says he has built up numerous contacts in law enforcement among other agencies in the region that help the county, often bringing in a helicopter or bloodhound for a search or other resources for assistance.

Bourke is married to Suzanne. His daughter Maria, 24, is disabled and attends a day program through the Arc of Genesee Orleans.

Bourke is in Tuesday’s Republican primary for sheriff against Brett Sobieraski. Bourke also has secured the Conservative and Independence party lines.

Orleans Hub editor Tom Rivers interviewed Bourke on June 14 at Hoag Library.

Question: How did you get interested in law enforcement and why have you stuck with it?

Bourke: It’s always been a passion of mine. I was always fascinated by police officers. I wasn’t one of those kids who got into a lot of trouble. I always thought, “Why would you do that because that is wrong.” I wasn’t a perfect kid, nobody is.

I was fascinated by law enforcement. I actually started out in the construction world and I was working under an electrician as an electrician’s helper, and eventually I was going to be an electrician. I loved the building and the construction world, and I still do. But I still had this burning desire to work in law enforcement.

So I was hired in 1984 by Dave Green (sheriff at the time) as a part-time corrections officer in the Orleans County Jail for $5.30 an hour. I thought well I’ll get my foot in the door, and I just loved it, and eventually became a full-time corrections officer and for a short period of time attained the rank of corporal. Then there was the opportunity to move to the criminal division as a deputy sheriff, so on Jan. 1, 1986, I was appointed a deputy sheriff. That was like a lifetime dream for me came true.

So then I had the privilege of attending Niagara County Community College at Niagara’s Law Enforcement Academy for four months and for me it was a dream come true.

So I’ve loved the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office and I always have, and I still do. I always fight for the deputy sheriff that I think sometimes gets the short end of the deal. In the old days they weren’t considered as good as police officers. They were called political policemen and all these things. So eventually Civil Service came into the Sheriff’s Offices across New York State. You had to pass the test to be a deputy sheriff.

Provided photo: Chris Bourke, shown with K9 Cim, was a K9 officer for 20 years with the Sheriff’s Office.

Question: So how did that work back then?

Bourke: It wasn’t a Civil Service position and you were hired by the sheriff. The requirements were the same. The Bureau of Municipal Police would set the standards for the academy. So a deputy sheriff still had to be a certified police officer.

So you didn’t get away with it just because you were a friend of somebody and got the job. You still had to meet the requirements that every other police officer in New York State had to meet. You had to pass the Police Academy, and it was difficult. It’s a tough thing to get through the academy and anybody who has done that I have respect for.

Question: When you started as a deputy were you on nights? Is that generally how it starts?

Bourke: What is unique to the Sheriff’s Office at that time is there really weren’t any public safety dispatchers. There were only a couple. Deputy sheriffs would dispatch and work the road.

I spent a lot of time in what is now called the 911 center, pre-911.

Question: Wasn’t it in the jail back then? (Now at Public Safety Building)

Bourke: It was located in the jail in a narrow long room in the back. The civil office was up front. Everything was contained in the jail building. So those earlier days you’re obviously not going to be on days. I was in the evenings and did 7 ½ years of afternoons, which was a great learning experience because in the beginning I would be dispatching, some days riding with another person, and the other days until I completed the academy it was what you call field training in today’s world.

So I thought the time I spent in that dispatch center was excellent training as well. You got to learn the other side of it. When deputies were being phased out of there, that was around the time that 911 was just started to be phased in.

We used to have a bank of phones with a whole bunch of different phone numbers. Every fire company had their own phone number, and it was more less mechanical buttons that you had to do the fire tones and be timed to do the next tones. Now, it’s push one button and then the Zetron will cycle through the tones.

It was different back then but it was a great experience for me because it allowed me to learn another phase, another division of the Sheriff’s Office.

Question: When you think about, the Sheriff’s Office has come a long way since then. I remember when the office was in the little house across from the jail.

Bourke: It was so tiny. (The Sheriff’s Office moved to the Public Safety Building, a former furniture store, about 20 years ago.)

Question: It seemed very substandard before the move to the Public Safety Building. I remember when Dick Metz was the undersheriff and people had to walk through his office to use the bathroom.

Bourke: Yes. And we had a manual typewriter in the dispatch. You’ll hear a police officer or deputy say, “Punch me a card.” They still use that old terminology but today of course it’s done with a computer. But in those days you physically punched a 3-by-5 card with a time stamp machine. You put it in the manual typewriter and you assigned it a number, and you typed the complaint on a 3-by-5 card.

Now we’re clicking on a computer and creating a digital card or complaint number with everything time stamped. It’s so different than when we started.

Question: Is that the dispatchers doing that?

Bourke: Yes.

Chris Bourke greets residents on Thursday during the Kendall Fireman’s Carnival Parade.

Question: I wonder about having the laptops in the patrol cars and how that is better?

Bourke: The deputies in the car or a police officer in this county can actually create their own complaint card from the car so it can happen either way right now with our CAD system (Computer Aided Dispatch).

It’s a nice system, it’s a mapping system. On top of that everything is time stamped and digitally saved. It’s a quicker and better system than a 3-by-5 card with a manual typewriter.

Question: Are deputies and police officers out in the field more often with the new system, rather than inside typing the reports?

Bourke: Yes, there are still things you need to come into the office to do. But every car has a computer with several systems running on the computer. So it’s basically the deputy has his office right in the car. There’s also a printer in the car. There’s a digital reader for licenses and registrations. So there’s no more hand-writing tickets or hand-writing accident reports.

Actually, SJS the police report is all done on the computer now. The only thing that is still hand written is the domestic incident reports. I would assume that will be changing soon to a digital format. It is a completely different world from when I started.

I have respect for what we have now, but I have appreciation for how we did our work back then as well. You had to come in at the end of your shift and go on to a manual typewriter out back and type your reports. It was a big deal when we had an electric typewriter at one point in time. It was like whoa, we’re really moving forward here.

Question: People might wonder where the technology is going. The body cams are becoming more common. I don’t think the Sheriff’s Office has gone to that yet, while many other local agencies have.

Bourke: We have not gone to that at this point in time. Cost is one of the issues. They are expensive. And it’s not just the body camera. It’s the storage of the data, complete policy has to be put in place. How is that data transferred to the office? How long do you save it? What do you release if somebody requests information?

So I think we’ll probably be there at some point in time.

I do reject the notion that unless it’s on video the police officer is not telling the truth. I think we’ve kind of gone in that direction. I think most of the time, probably 99 percent of the time, it will show the police officer acted properly and did the right thing. But some folks think it’s not on video so the police officer is lying. I reject that argument.

Our cars, as far as technology, I would put our patrol cars up against anybody, anywhere. The features that we have on those Chevy Tahoes and the technology in those cars is second to none.

Those G-Tack mobile data terminals – Las Vegas just bought 600 of them – they are cutting edge in mobile technology.

‘We make it work. Our people – the staff in the jail, the dispatch, the deputies on the road, and the office staff – they are unbelievable. They make it work. They should get all the credit.’

Question: Is that all in the last few years?

Bourke: We’ve had mobile data terminals for many years. But these G-Tacks are the latest and greatest. They have the swipe for the license right in the computer. You’re able to hit buttons and log onto the scene instantly.

Like I said, connectivity is a constant issue we have to maintain, connecting through a virtual private network. We have all of these cars out there and they have to connect to our system. We are in constant communication with computer services over an issue with this car or that car. Sometimes things happen with connectivity and we have an issue from time to time.

Our cars are equipped with AR-15 Bushmaster rifles. That is a change from many years ago when you had a shotgun in the trunk or maybe mounted up front. In today’s policing, police can be outgunned by some of these crazy weapons that are out there very easily.

The standard now is to have an automatic weapon available to the officers. It used to be that was kind of a SWAT team weapon, but they’re standard in all of our cars. We were able to obtain some grant money.

The theory and the plan for that is as we know every day or every week we see some incident across the country and those incidents are over with in a very short period of time, so are responding deputy sheriffs and police officers in this county are going to be the first defense in one of those kinds of incidents. We want our people to be as prepared as they can be. We want them to go to threat and take the threat out if we have a shooter in a school or business. With just a handgun you may be outgunned immediately. So most police officers these days have a rifle in the car. Some of our cars have a rifle and a shotgun.

This is big step up from where we were years ago and it’s an important step. For the safety and security of the folks we need to be able to address these threats immediately.

Yes, you’re going to be getting your SWAT team together. But those folks might be coming in from home. The immediate threat is there and we have to be able to deal with it.

Some of the Bourke supporters are shown during Kendall’s parade on Thursday.

Question: What is the total employees with all the departments in the Sheriff’s Office? Isn’t it about 110?

Bourke: Yes. We’re short deputy sheriffs right now. We’ve had some retirements and other issues where people separated from the department and some of that was in litigation. So the county doesn’t fill spots that are held by another individual so there’s actually a delay sometimes in filling spots. My mission is to get us back up to full staff, which is around 24.

Question: Does the 24 include the Kendall and Lyndonville school resource officers?

Bourke: Yes. It includes investigators and the three assigned to the courthouse. So when you take three investigators out of that and three from the courthouse who are assigned, then two at Kendall and Lyndonville schools, you’re left with, in my opinion, relatively small numbers to do the 24-hour patrol duties of the Sheriff’s Office.

Question: Why do we have deputies at the courthouse and not lower-salaried security officers?

Bourke: That is governed by the Unified Court System. If you are going to provide the security services to the court system, they tell you how many and how you’re going to do it.

Mike Mele, the chief deputy, on a daily basis is actually filling the fourth deputy over there many days of the week, but the court system many times will change that on us at the last minute, and tell us I’m sorry that case was cancelled and we only need three today. Now we have a person in on overtime to fill your spot. They dictate that.

Many other counties have switched over to unified court officers. Erie County and some of the other counties started this transition, but when they got to a certain point, they stopped. We have not changed over. We still have deputy sheriffs doing that work. The Office of Court Administration pays the cost. They pay the wages of the deputies at the courthouse.

And as a negotiated agreement with Kendall and Lyndonville, the schools pay the wages of the deputy plus a little overtime for special events and a vehicle.

So that does reduce our number of actual deputy sheriffs. Now any of these deputies could sign up for an overtime shift, because we are running extra shifts.

Question: I thought with the resource officers the county would create two new positions and not take from the current deputies?

Bourke: They did create two positions, but we’re still short.

Question: They were deputies who then shifted to the resource officers.

Chris Bourke speaks during a press conference on May 4, 2018 after a mother and son in Kendall died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Bourke: And their (old) spots haven’t been filled. There will eventually be two additionals. We were short to begin with and we took two and put them there (at the schools). We’re still catching up.

Hiring a deputy isn’t a short process. Sometimes we can pick up a lateral transfer from another department. That still requires 14 weeks of field training.

But if you do not pick up a trained officer, then you’re talking about four months of the police academy if they make it through, then 14 weeks of field training. If they make it through the field training OK then you have an officer you can use.

We have some potential lateral transfers that we’re looking at now, but you also have to do a background investigation to make sure you’re not getting somebody else’s problem.

Question: I wonder why you would want to be sheriff being of retirement age when there are a lot of headaches with the job?

Bourke: I love the Sheriff’s Office. I like to get a challenge and say give me something so I can fix it and make it work. I think I’m creative and you have to be in Orleans County. For example our training budget is so small in the grand scheme of things. And I’m not blaming the County Legislature. Everybody goes to the budget hearings wanting their share of the pie and the sheriff does, too.

How many people in this county say, “Yes, I’d love to pay more taxes.” Probably not too many. So you have to be creative with what you have. I think I’m good at that. We find ways to get the funding to get the training. We do it in-service so you’re not bringing people in on overtime. But I like those problems to try to solve and make it work.

We just negotiated a very good agreement with the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office. Our SWAT team vans basically rusted into the ground. They were secured by the Task Force many years ago as seizure vehicles. They basically rotted away and had to be towed away. So really our SWAT team doesn’t have a good vehicle to move our team.

I have great relationships with all of the surrounding counties and the agencies in the county. I was in a discussion with the sheriff at Niagara County one day at a lunch and he said they were getting a new SWAT van. I said, “What about the old one?” He said, “Do you want it?” They bought a new $170,000 van to transport their people. We bought their old one for $6,500. It’s in excellent condition even though it has some years on it.

We’re in the process of upfitting that right now. Those are the kinds of things I feel I can do for the county and the people, by making connections and making things work because you don’t have the resources, the money and the people to roll 10 cars up at a violent scene.

We’re going to roll 2, 3 and hopefully a couple state troopers and we’re going to handle the situation.

If you see on the news on the TV in some of the big cities, you’ll see 10 or a dozen patrol cars there. We don’t have that luxury. I’ve learned it, I lived it to be creative and make it work here, and we make it work. My goal is always to make it work for the people at the lowest cost we can. Because I, like everybody else, aren’t interested in paying a lot in more taxes. I wish we could have a blank check. You’d have everything you want. You’d have all the people you want. But we make it work. But our people – the staff in the jail, the dispatch, the deputies on the road, and the office staff – they are unbelievable. They make it work. They should get all the credit.

Question: With the Task Force, is that something you would push for to have under your control?

Bourke: I’m not pushing for anything with the Task Force. Sheriff Bower has pushed for that. He has asked a lot of questions, and in the course of asking those questions he has got into an adversarial relationship with the DA and the Task Force.

Mike Mele and myself have continued to work with the Task Force and talk with those guys and tried to make a working relationship. I think the Legislature would confirm that. By constantly asking these questions it’s become a difficult relationship. I think they would tell you, the DA and the guys on the Task Force, that I have tried to work with them to the best of my ability.

Sixty other counties in the state do it (the Task Force) a different way than we do. But I understand how we got to where we are today. Under the Hess administration it was changed over to the DA’s Office for various reasons. The county has funded the Task Force. They funded it again in ’19.

So as long as the county is going to fund the Drug Task Force under the DA’s Office, I’m not going to be in a position to say you’re wrong, and you’re wrong. If they want to run that Drug Task Force through the DA’s Office, number one I don’t have the power to change it. Number two, I don’t have the power to take money away from them nor could I fire them and nor would I fire them. This notion that I would fire people as soon as I got in is ridiculous. It a ridiculous statement. I couldn’t do it if I wanted to and I don’t want to.

So my position would be to get us in the room more often, work together more often, and then if at a different date the DA comes in and decides he doesn’t want to run the Task Force then we may at some point go back to a multi-agency task force like we had years ago with a person assigned from all the various police departments.

Right now it’s funded, it’s there and that’s the way it’s going to be.

Question: You also hear that the county doesn’t train with the other agencies and the Sheriff’s Office isn’t cooperative with the other agencies. Is that true?

Bourke: Some people with their own self-serving agendas make statements like that. We just had our CIT training, the crisis intervention training for mental health, in Medina Fire Department. It was a multi-agency training.

We train every month with at least one training with our SWAT team, which is a multi-agency SWAT team with Albion, Medina, Holley and the Sheriff’s Office. Even including Department of Environmental Conservation officers.

Question: Is Rollie Nenni, the Albion and Holley police chief, the leader of the SWAT team?

Bourke: That is another unique setup. There is a committee that oversees, I guess that’s the word, and they get to elect a commander. At this time Rollie Nenni is the commander. Rollie Nenni lives and breathes SWAT and SWAT training. He is an excellent trainer, he is very knowledgeable. I have no intentions of changing that. Rollie and I speak several times a week usually on various issues. But we do train together. I’m of the opinion we can always do more training together.

We recently had the New York State Sheriff’s Association Institute do a civil process training. In my time here I have never been officially trained in civil process. I’ve had a lot of hand-me-down information and learned a lot over the years.

I invited Medina and Albion to come, not that they serve civil process, but a lot of it had to do with eviction and eviction process. It’s things that they deal with as police officers on a daily basis. Even though we do all the service and handling of that stuff, other police officers do as well. So I always invite them.

I think they would tell you that I would be in favor of any training we could do together. Do we do enough now? I don’t think it is ever enough.

‘I also feel with my experience and my connections that I’ve made over the years, I can pick up the phone and call any surrounding agency from federal, state, and county and local and have whatever we need to get the job done. We work together constantly with the state police. I can pick up the phone and tell one of the commanders I need a bloodhound, I need a helicopter, commercial vehicle enforcement, and it’s there.’

Question: I know from going to many of the accidents and fires over the years that you are often there at the scene. Even from your days as the K9 officer you’ve had a high profile with the Sheriff’s Office and seem drawn to the action.

Bourke: I do love the action. My wife isn’t exactly thrilled with this but I listen to that radio all day, every day. I listen to it up until I go to bed. I have it in my vehicle, even if I’m in my private vehicle I have the portable (radio) because I feel a sense of responsibility to listen and to make sure we get it right, the best we can.

I was out the other night on a search for an individual on Hulberton Road til midnight, from 7 to midnight. We’re small enough from the top person to the newest deputy there isn’t that many spaces. I don’t consider myself above anything. If I need to go walk through a swamp to help, that’s what I’ll do.

So I feel that sense of responsibility that I need to respond to things that are serious. The other reason is we can use the help with the man hours. Mike Mele and myself we respond to most things that are of any serious nature, and we do the best that we can.

I also feel with my experience and my connections that I’ve made over the years, I can pick up the phone and call any surrounding agency from federal, state, and county and local and have whatever we need to get the job done. We work together constantly with the state police.

I can pick up the phone and tell one of the commanders I need a bloodhound, I need a helicopter, commercial vehicle enforcement, and it’s there.

I have through Niagara County’s sheriff and undersheriff, they have said don’t just keep calling me when you need the helicopter, just call the helicopter pilot directly yourself. Usually there is a chain that has to be approved. So now I call Ron Steen, he is their pilot and I’ve known him for 25 years. I call him directly and I say, “Hey, we have a search and we need a helicopter, can you come up and fly?” He says, “yup, we’ll be up in five minutes.”

You build those relationships up over the years and it benefits the people of Orleans County. Are we going to have a helicopter? I don’t think so but I can have one here within a few minutes.

Question: I think of the missing Barre earlier this year. There were a lot of agencies out here.

Bourke: Absolutely. We had the divers from the State Police. We had a helicopter from the State Police. We had Niagara County’s helicopter. We had the State Police drone unit. We had Niagara County’s drone unit. We had the State Police’s bloodhound. We had the forest rangers who are experts at search and rescue.

It’s about pulling all of those people together. I think I’m good at that. We can’t have every resource in Orleans County. We just don’t have the money but we can know how to get them and that’s what I feel I am good at, pulling people together.

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