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Indicted officer talks of lax rules;

The Times Union (Albany, NY), THREE STAR EDITION
BYLINE: Kim Martineau; Staff Writer

Schenectady, NY

Schenectady Nick Messere, in FBI interview, claims cops regularly stashed drugs in lockers

A city police officer accused of paying his informants with crack cocaine told FBI agents that he occasionally stashed confiscated drugs in his locker against department policy and considered the department "a joke" because regulations were never enforced.

"No one enforces any policies or rules and regulations," Schenectady Police Officer Nick Messere told the FBI, according to a transcript of the interview obtained by the Times Union.

A year after agents visited him at his home in Burnt Hills, Messere, 42, and his friend and colleague, Lt. Michael Hamilton, 35, were indicted on federal racketeering charges.

Messere and Hamilton were netted in a corruption probe focusing on allegations that a group of rogue patrol cops traded drugs for information. While the cops racked up drug arrests and overtime, earning the praise of the chief and others, they were also the target of numerous complaints, mostly from Schenectady's minority community.

Four officers have been indicted in connection with the probe; two have been convicted. A fifth officer suspended in connection with the investigation, but not charged with any crime, recently killed himself in a tragic turn of events.

Messere and Hamilton are scheduled to face trial together on Dec. 10 before U.S. District Judge David Hurd. The two cops face up to 30 years in prison if convicted. To some extent the department itself will also be on trial. Its reputation has been badly battered by the FBI investigation and reports of officers trampling on people's civil rights.

Messere's comments echo long-standing complaints about the lack of supervision in the department and a failure to investigate complaints. But his claims that guidelines were vague and rarely enforced might also be an effort to shift the blame for his alleged misconduct.

Police Chief Gregory Kaczmarek called Messere's assessment of his leadership self-serving and false. "If he was under the assumption that nothing was being investigated, he obviously was wrong," Kaczmarek said. "He got indicted."

Messere and other officers claim they regularly stashed drugs in their department lockers.

In August 1999, a street informant complained to police that two cops had robbed him of money and drugs. The stationhouse lockers of Richard Barnett and Michael Siler were opened, revealing drugs inside.

In his interview with the FBI, Messere admitted that he had drugs in his own locker at the time. Messere went on to say that he sometimes took crack and marijuana from teenagers without arresting them and either flushed the drugs down the toilet or put them in his locker.

"I'll tell you the truth," he said, according to the transcript. "You forget what you put in your locker." Messere's lawyer, Paul DerOhannesian, declined to discuss the FBI interview, saying he'd reserve his comments for trial.

Messere claims the administration let Siler and Barnett, "get out of hand."

"The chief of police knew what they were doing and condoned it by ignoring it," he said. "They should have been called in and counseled.

"Kaczmarek is a weak chief who was never a cop and is not a manager," he said.

Messere also claims Lt. Hamilton, one of the department's top drug busters before he was indicted, was lax about enforcing rules.

"Mike Hamilton is lenient with his guys as far as following policies and procedures regarding drug evidence," Messere told the federal agents. "If an individual cop at SPD (Schenectady Police Department) does not follow the rules, it is his fault. But it is also the fault of SPD administrators because there has been no enforcement of policies and procedures."

Hamilton's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, scoffed at Messere's statements. "Mike is a by-the-book guy," he said. "The rules of the department may have been a joke to some but not to Mike."

But Hamilton himself provided some ambivalent answers about evidence handling, when questioned last year in connection with a civil lawsuit.

"If I was on the street and found a bunch of crack on the corner that somebody might have dropped, I'm not going to charge them, I mean, if it's a busy night, I'm not going to rush down to the station and put it in evidence, something that has no important value because nobody's getting charged," he said.

"I'd throw it in my bag and when I did get to the station later on in the night with an arrest, then I would put it into an evidence bag and drop it in the mailbox at the sergeant's desk," he said in the January 2000 deposition.

Hamilton admitted he had at times unintentionally stored illegal drugs in his locker. But when pressed for details, he said he'd done it "very few" times and "less than five," and then, insisted it never happened.

"What types of drugs have you unintentionally put in your locker?" asked lawyer Kevin Luibrand in the deposition.

"I wouldn't say like put in my locker," Hamilton replied. "I'd say like I threw it in my bag and you know I might be checking for some paperwork a few weeks later and see, oh, the bag of marijuana I found on the ground and forgot to put into evidence. So I would put that in an evidence bag and throw it in the mailbox. I wouldn't say I put it in my locker."

Most departments have strict policies regarding the handling of evidence to make sure charges stick and can't be successfully challenged at trial.

Schenectady's policy, which dates to 1992, says that guns, drugs and other evidence seized at a crime scene must be brought immediately to the station. There, officers log the evidence in with a desk officer, who drops it into a safe until it can be transferred to the property manager. Only a handful of people have access to evidence safes.

The rules weren't always so clear. In 1989, the department's handling of evidence was publicly called into question, when $10,000 of confiscated drug money went missing from a vice squad safe. The theft was never solved.

Missing drugs and money are a common theme in many police scandals, yet guidelines for how cops handle evidence vary widely among the 20,000 departments across the country.

Often, evidence management becomes a priority only when scandal erupts. "We're taught to be cops, not accountants," said Joe Latta, a former police lieutenant who now heads the International Association for Property and Evidence, based in California.

No evidence policy may have been able to prevent the problems in Schenectady, where the allegations involve drugs never making it to the property room. Though many law enforcement agencies have a "two-man rule" that calls for two people to count money or weigh and seal drugs that have been seized, in many cases there's only one officer at the crime scene, making it hard to guarantee that everything makes it into evidence.

"If the theft occurs before the officer gets into the station," said Latta, "you can have a 12-man rule and it's not going to do any good."

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