LITTLE VALLEY — The initial report was for a pickup truck off the road.
But Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office personnel responding to the seemingly routine call last May on Route 242 in Machias soon found themselves faced with a potentially life-threatening situation.
The driver, a 36-year-old Vermont man, was having a psychiatric emergency — chanting biblical verses and making incoherent statements. He also happened to be a highly trained combat veteran in possession of several loaded firearms both in his pocket and in his truck.
“Things could have went very bad in a hurry,” said Capt. Shawn Gregory of the sheriff’s office.
However, law officers remained calm, cautiously surrounded the man and took him into custody without anyone being harmed.
The personnel — Sgt. Andrew Rozler, Hanz Heineman and Steven Dombek — have now been recognized for their efforts, as the sheriff’s office honored them with the Meritorious Award at its recent awards dinner.
The prestigious award has only been issued 13 times in the sheriff’s office’s 202-year history. Rozler, Heineman and Dombek are the 15th, 16th and 17th recipients.
“They figured out that they were dealing with someone obviously very mentally distraught and from there they made a quick plan and executed it perfectly before the guy could get back into the vehicle and access the multiple weapons that he had in there,” Gregory said. “It was another example of our deputies and just how high of a level they’ve been trained and how good they really are with our community.”
The deputies’ actions are especially noteworthy when considering such interactions between the police and mentally ill often have tragic outcomes.
About a quarter of the nearly 1,000 people shot and killed by police nationwide in 2017 were identified as being mentally ill, according to a Washington Post analysis.
However, Dombek, who was the first to arrive on scene, said he doesn’t think he “did anything special.”
“I just feel like I did my job,” he said. “I did what I was supposed to do.”
It was coincidental that Dombek, a Salamanca City Central School District school resource officer, was even in the area to respond. He was working in the Olean area May 7, but had to transport a juvenile to a non-secure detention facility in Buffalo.
Dombek was on his way back from Buffalo when the report of a motor vehicle accident came over the scanner.
“I said, ‘I’m in the area if no one is available,’” he recalled. “So I ended up taking the call and heading over there.”
At the scene, several passersby informed him the driver was acting strange, leading Dombek to initially think it may be a drunk-driving situation. However, after watching the man’s behavior — he was on his knees and chanting — and attempting to converse with him, Dombek realized it may be much more than that.
“I started getting the feeling it wasn’t an alcohol-based issue, that maybe there was either drugs or a mental health issue,” he said. “He made mention of having a lot of weapons with him. That’s when I made the call for additional cars to come.”
A New York State Police trooper arrived and helped Dombek hold down the scene until Rozler and Heineman arrived. From there, they determined they needed to get the man into custody to make sure he couldn’t access any of the weapons he claimed to have.
Rozler and Heineman slipped around behind the man while Dombek and the trooper approached him from the front, and together they brought the man to the ground and handcuffed him.
They would ultimately find a .38-caliber revolver and pocket knife in the man’s pocket, as well as a rifle, additional handguns and camping gear in the truck.
The man was arrested on several weapons charges, as he did not have a New York state pistol permit and his rifle was not in compliance with New York’s SAFE Act.
The man turned out to be a decorated war veteran and former police officer and SWAT team member who had a “one in a thousand” adverse reaction to his medication, Gregory said.
The Cattaraugus County District Attorney’s Office allowed the man to go back to Vermont and eventually dropped the charges against him.
“(Veterans Affairs) doctors immediately recognized the adverse reaction he had from the medicine he was on and corrected it,” Gregory said. “He’s back to normal and living a great life with his family back in Vermont.”
Dombek said “charges are not the big end to our job,” and all that matters is that the man is receiving the help he needs.
Gregory credited Dombek for showing patience and compassion toward the man and not escalating the situation while waiting for backup to arrive. Dombek, who began as an SRO about a month after the incident, said he always tries to begin every situation “calm, cool and collected,” as a subject’s demeanor often matches that of the officer.
“You talk to them, you try to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work, but I’d rather come in like that and not make the situation any worse than it needs to be,” he said. “You have to be in control of the situation. If you appear to be out of control, then people around you can assume you’re out of control and then that person might feed into that.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)